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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Big Man's Best (And Worst)

Luciano Pavarotti.
Photo by Judy Kovacs.
Pavarotti on Disc: The Good, The Bad, and the Cheesy.

The impact of Luciano Pavarotti's death is still being felt in the operatic world. It's hard to believe he passed away just over five months ago. Yet with all the scandal and weeping, not enough has been written about Pavarotti the recorded artist, who made some truly fine opera recordings before he died. Here's a quick sampling:

Mascagni: L'Amico Fritz (cond. Gianandra Gavazzeni)
This Covent Garden recording of a rarely performed pastoral comedy by Mascagni features the great tenor in full flower. Worth hearing just for the "Cherry Duet" between the young Pavarotti and Mirella Freni. And at 93 minutes, it's over before you know it.

Verdi: Rigoletto, (cond. Richard Bonynge)
A classic Rigoletto that makes up in singing what it lacks in dramatic spark. (I like the Sinopoli and Giulini recordings better.) But it does have the dream cast of Pav, Sutherland and Sherril Milnes in the title role. As in the theater, Pavarotti makes the most out of "Quest o quella" and "La donna e mobile". Both arias sound better in their dramatic context, anyway.

Puccini: Turandot (cond. Zubin Mehta)
This isn't the best Turandot on the market, but Pavarotti and Sutherland's Beijing showdown (with Montserrat Caballe as Liu) is one of their best recordings. This is a thoroughly satisfying Turandot and the best place to hear the great tenor sing "Nessun Dorma". Once again, dramatic context keeps the big tune from becoming a cliché.

Rossini: Gugliemo Tell (cond. Riccardo Chailly)
Rossini's final opera is criminally neglected today, mostly because no tenor can sing the role of Arnold without having an apoplexy. This is a long, slow opera that is tough on the singers. The duets with Caballe are sublime. His solo arias are even better. This gorgeous recording captures Pavarotti towards the end of his prime period, and offers a showcase for some of the best technical singing that he ever did. Great stuff.

Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier, (cond. Sir Georg Solti)
Just a cameo here, as Pavarotti takes the small role of the Italian Tenor from Richard Strauss' most famous opera out for a spin. This single aria, which embodies everything Strauss hated about Italian tenors, shows the listener everything that was good about Pavarotti's remarkable voice.

There are some recordings out there that are for the libraries of completists, apologists, and record company executives. In other words, avoid these:

Verdi: Otello (cond. Sir Georg Solti)
One can only wonder what motivated Pavarotti to tackle the the single most difficult tenor role in the Italian repertory. (Greed? Hubris? Rivalry with Placido Domingo?) No amount of studio trickery can make Pav into Otello. No wonder he ruined his voice.

Bellini: Norma (cond. Richard Bonynge)
Pavarotti is fine on this recording. The culprit is Sutherland, who was way too old to sing the title role in this opera in the 1980s. Get her earlier recording with Marilyn Horne.

Verdi: Don Carlo (cond. Riccardo Muti)
This is from the infamous attempt Pavarotti made on this grandest of Verdi operas at La Scala. He cracked noticeably on the opening aria, "Io lo vidi" and it was downhill from there. A complete and utter mess with a bad supporting cast. Happily, it is also available on DVD--so you can see the overstuffed Zeffirelli production in all its questionable glory.

Verdi: Il Trovatore
Manrico proved to be Pavarotti's Waterloo on CD. Both recordings, one with Bonynge and Sutherland, and a later one with Zubin Mehta, are to be avoided at all cost. If you want to hear this opera properly sung, get the del Monaco recording, or better yet, one with Franco Corelli or Carlo Bergonzi.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.