A film by Esther Schapira. EuroArts 2058918, 58 mins. (documentary), 35 mins. (bonus interviews), subtitled
Luciano Pavarotti would seem an unlikely subject for German filmmaker Esther Schapira, whose credits include documentaries about Muhammad al-Durrah, a twelve-year-old Palestinian boy ostensibly shot by Israeli soldiers, and Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was assassinated by a Muslim terrorist in 2004. Her 2010 film about "the most successful tenor of all time" is milder stuff, and it doesn't unearth much that Pavarotti fans don't know already. It does, however, have a point of view, and it's well put together.
Some aspects of the Pavarotti story are inarguable. He had a great voice. He was opera's great popularizer, who turned arias into chart hits and sports anthems. He was larger than life in every way and, though hardly conventionally handsome, was thought of as sexy by women the world over. Once his career took flight, he seldom sang to a less than sold-out opera house, concert hall or stadium. He could command up to a million dollars or more for an appearance. Irish rock star Bono, who gave concerts with Pavarotti, says, "He was opera itself."
But there was a nastier side. Pavarotti was autocratic. As his longtime manager Herbert Breslin puts it, "Everybody who worked with Luciano was in a state of semi-slavery." His artistic limitations included laziness, unreliability and frequent cancellations. He was notoriously unfaithful to his first wife, Adua, who divorced him in 2000 after thirty-nine years of marriage and agreed to appear in this film only if Pavarotti's second wife, Nicoletta Mantovani, was not interviewed. The tenor is shown as neglectful of his first family. Adua tells us, "He stayed the night with his horses when they were sick. He never did that with his daughters." Former Metropolitan Opera general manager Joseph Volpe believes that despite his fame and fortune, Pavarotti was lonely, which may have contributed to the singer's Rabelaisian eating habits. Pavarotti's passions are enumerated as music, women, food and sports — then family and friends.
Breslin, who steered Pavarotti toward wealth and fame by exploiting the financial potential of concerts over opera performances, is less abrasive here than in his vitriolic memoir, The King and I, written with Anne Midgette, now The Washington Post's chief classical-music critic. After decades of collaboration, Pavarotti left Breslin for agent-presenter Tibor Rudas, who created the enormously lucrative "Three Tenors" phenomenon.
Among the surviving tenors of that trio, José Carreras has only good things to say of his friend and colleague. Plácido Domingo is conspicuous by his absence.
Soprano Mirella Freni, who grew up with Pavarotti in Modena, Italy, and was a frequent partner in his opera performances, speaks lovingly but peppers her words with pointed jokes about his eccentricities. Bono's comments on Pavarotti are among the film's most perceptive, coming from outside the classical-music world and offering a different, more objective perspective. One figure given surprising prominence though virtually unknown in the U.S. is Edwin Tinoco, author of a biography published in Germany in 2008, shortly after the singer's death.
Some of the loveliest moments show Luciano with his father, Fernando Pavarotti, a baker and singer who maintained a jovial rivalry with his son long after "the little tenor had turned into the big tenor" and become a superstar. Musically thrilling is a snippet from La Fille du Régiment, reminding us that in his prime, Pavarotti really was "King of the High Cs."
Toward the end, the man with the handkerchief continued to gain weight and had trouble walking. His singing suffered, and many felt he had become a caricature of himself. Schapira includes some of these elements, but to those of us who followed his career from the glory days to his death in 2007 (from pancreatic cancer, the disease that had taken both his parents), Schapira's telling of his story — absorbing as it is — seems ultimately superficial and incomplete.