For some time after the death of Luciano Pavarotti I’ve been thinking about fame and reputation and how it often doesn’t conform to reality. The reaction to the great tenor’s death reminded me of the reactions to the deaths of Elvis Presley and Maria Callas both of which happened close together 30 years before Pavarotti’s demise. It seems very clear that Pavarotti will be granted the same legendary status accorded to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Queen of Opera.
When Elvis died some wag commented, “Good career move.” Certainly it was. Can you imagine what Presley’s status would be if he were still sweating away in Las Vegas like Wayne Newton. I was never able to understand what the origin of Elvis’s sensational appeal to millions of crazed fans was. But I know very little about Rock ‘n’ Roll so my inability to see much merit in Presley’s performances could well be due to my ignorance.
Callas is a different story. I can appreciate her artistry but can also hear her failings. Her vocal technique was flawed from the start allowing her to get by with raw energy and dramatic intensity when she was young, but which became painful to listen to when she was older. Her career lasted about as long as Giuseppe Di Stefano’s did. But no one criticizes her for ruining her voice the way Di Stefano is chastised for destroying his. Di Stefano was, in my view, a far more interesting artist who had all the dramatic intensity conceded to Callas, but who also had one of the most beautiful voices ever recorded. No one ever suggested Callas had a beautiful voice. Callas was riveting on stage, but there was a hint that everything had been meticulously prepared in advance; the sense of spontaneity was dulled. But arguing about the reality of Presley’s and Callas’s talents vis-à-vis other comparable performers will change nothing. Their reputations have been sealed in cultural cement. This has hardened so securely that reality is irrelevant. In Callas’s case the masons were a handful of influential critics who have virtually made it a crime to place any other female singer anywhere near her. The deal is done I won’t say anything more – forget about Ponselle, Milanov, Sutherland, etc.
The same process is underway with Pavarotti. It will soon be operatic law that of 20th century tenors only Caruso was comparable. I heard Pavarotti many times in Chicago and New York in both recitals and staged performances. He was a great tenor; not many listeners would seriously dispute that. But I heard in performance three tenors who were clearly better – Jussi Björling, Richard Tucker, and Giuseppe Di Stefano. Placido Domingo in his prime was at least as good. Pavarotti had a great personality that audiences loved and which made his name known to just about everyone.
He had a lyric voice which he pushed into roles that were too big for him, Radames for example. His sound was beautiful but had a reedy quality to it. While his high notes were exceptional they did not have the ping that characterized Tucker or Björling at their best. His personality, however, clearly excelled either of the two other tenors. The one conceited and a shade pompous, the other reticent and with an alcohol problem.
If you made a list of the 10 best “Italian” tenors of the 20th century Pavarotti would clearly be on it. But I don’t think a critical listener would put him above all but Caruso. Listen to Björling here (Di quella pira) and here (Donna non vidi ma). Then listen to Tucker in his prime (Improvviso) and at the age of 59 (Va prononcer ma mort, rachel quand du seigneur). Finally listen to Di Stefano singing Salut demeure and Che gelida manina . The former with a diminuendo on the climactic high C the latter with a brilliant, and unforced, full voice high C. Was Pavarotti ever better than these three tenors? The just for kicks listen to Placido Domingo on just about the best evening (1972) of his life singing O paradis from Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine.
None of this will make any difference. Planes didn’t fly over Björling’s funeral. Di Stefano will not get a state funeral when he finally succumbs to the combination of age and his head injury. Tucker got a funeral on the stage of the Met, but only opera lovers know his name now. Domingo is justly famous today for his combination of singing, conducting, and running half the music world. But a generation from now his fame will not be near that of Pavarotti. “Pavarotti” will be synonymous for tenorial brilliance. Even some real opera lovers will take leave of their judgment be swept along by a tide created by a smile, a handkerchief, a popular groundswell and of course a voice.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”