October 2007

Treasured Pavarotti recollections


David and Alison Gyger with Luciano Pavarotti at a charity reception organised by the Australian Opera Auditions Committee at the Sydney home of Mr Harry Douglas on January 28, 1983. [Photo: Identity Studio]

DURING the 21-year period between 1965 and 1986, I saw the late Luciano Pavarotti in staged opera six times, in concert once and met him face-to-face on one memorable occasion.

Four of the onstage encounters were during the Sutherland-Williamson Grand Opera Season of 1965, when he had just burst upon the international opera scene and been taken under the wing of the great diva and her husband Richard Bonynge.

I was working for The Australian newspaper in Canberra at the time, but drove several times to Sydney to attend the three weekend performances - one on Friday night, two on Saturday. On each of my four such weekend excursions I attended one Sutherland performance when the old Her Majesty's Theatre in Quay Street was packed to the rafters with crowds dominated by operatic dabblers able and prepared to pay seven guineas for the best seats; the non-Sutherland performances, when the top price was four guineas, were quite sparsely attended, particularly the matinees, but drew an audience heavily seasoned with more knowledgeable and to some extent less well heeled devotees of an art form whose local resurrection in the hands of the burgeoning Elizabethan Trust Opera Company had only begun a decade or so before.

It was at the first of the 12 performances I attended during that memorable season, on Friday, September 3, 1965 - almost precisely, as the fates willed it, 47 years before his death last month at the age of 72 - that I first met the astonishing talent of the young Luciano Pavarotti as Nemorino in L'Elisir d'Amore.

The man was never a matinee idol cut from the remarkable bolt of DNA cloth which produces the Teddy Tahu Rhodeses of this operatic world, of course, but his figure had yet to balloon to the gargantuan proportions of his later years. He was a trifle pudgy, but a credible country bumpkin to the eye and a miracle to the ear. In its full youthful bloom, Pavarotti's voice was clearly an operatic treasure and there was no doubting that fact as soon as he opened his mouth.

It had phenomenal, seemingly effortless, power and an innate musicality which Pavarotti never lost over his long career despite his reprehensible decline into money-grabbing sports arena pseudo-operatic ventures.

During that 1965 Elisir I also had the pleasure of encountering Robert Allman as Belcore and the distinguished English soprano Elizabeth Harwood as a splendid Adina.

Later in that season, I encountered Pavarotti once as Edgardo to Harwood's Lucia di Lammermoor and Allman's Enrico and twice as Elvino in Bellini's La Sonnambula - once with Harwood in the major female role of Amina and once, at the very end of the extra week tacked onto the originally announced Sydney season at the expense of Brisbane, playing his role with both leading sopranos of the touring company, Harwood playing the second fiddle of Lisa to Sutherland's Amina.

All four of those 1965 Pavarotti performances, as well as the other eight I attended during those memorable few weeks, were rewarding, but the most memorable of all, perhaps, was that first Elisir - to be seriously rivalled in my memory banks only by the Semiramide I attended the next night when I first encountered Sutherland: as the Queen of Babylon, carried on stage in a sedan chair and receiving an extended ovation before she had sung so much as a single note.

EIGHTEEN YEARS were to roll by after 1965 before I encountered Pavarotti again: in 1983, when he made his only appearances with the Australian Opera, three performances of La Bohème with his protegée of the time, Madelyn Renée, as Mimě at his unfortunate insistence. Clearly, Pavarotti was reining in his sound in a considerate attempt to avoid swamping the considerably smaller voice of Renée. His bulk had burgeoned so even then, in midcareer, he only went through very fleeting genuflections in the direction of the requirements of Andrew Sinclair's restaging on Tom Lingwood's memorable sets of this 1972 production of the most popular of operas.

And there was also the lingering resentment, shared by me with many operagoers of the time, that Renée had infiltrated the cast at Pavarotti's insistence over the ravishing head of Marilyn Richardson who was at the time a Mimě quite literally to die for and was about to portray the ill-fated seamstress with great success later in the season at the Sydney Opera House.

It was during that 1983 summer season visit, when Pavarotti also apeared in a gala concert with Sutherland, that I actually met Pavarotti fleetingly, courtesy the late Sheila Prior, whose Australian Opera Auditions Committee organised a fund-raising function to which I was invited.

Quietly, my wife Alison and I were beckoned to a semi-private backwater for a brief tête-à-tête with a splendidly outgoing, beaming Pavarotti - of unexpectedly short duration. The great tenor abruptly lost interest in us, soon after the picture was snapped, when a huge platter of oysters loomed over the horizon. "No more photos," he decreed - and no more conversation. Being a Sydney rock oyster devotee myself, I had no quibble with that, though it would have been nice to extend our promising chat by a few minutes.

MY LAST encounter with Big Lucy, as he'd none too flatteringly been nicknamed by the time, was as Andrea Chénier at the New York Met 13 years later in 1996 - an intermittently exhilarating aural experience still, for the voice had yet to go into substantial decline, but a stagecraft absurdity even more unsatisfying than his AO Rodolfo had been due to his inability or unwillingness to delve very convincingly into the physical soul of the romantic poet.

Stand and deliver was by this time just about all he was capable of, and the vital moment when he was supposed to be fighting a duel with his Gérard Juan Pons, was absurd and totally unconvincing.

A platoon of choristers interposed themselves between the audience and Pavarotti and his opponent, who were way up stage, and the lights were dimmed so low we couldn't see anyhow what was going on. When the phalanx of minions parted, Pons was lying wounded on the floor. The sound of Pavarotti atoned for a good many of his histrionic shortfalls over the years, but not on this occasion.

The difference between Pavarotti's all-round artistry and that of his more prominent colleague amongst the famed three tenors of recent years was startlingly underscored the following night. In demeaning contrast, I saw Plácido Domingo as Siegmund in Die Walküre - making his initial entrance during the Act I Prelude, actually running through the forest as the action requires.

The sounds Domingo made never came within cooee of rivalling the beauty, power and all-round musicality of Pavarotti at his best, but Domingo once again proved himself the greater all-round artist.

Still, Pavarotti's tenor was undoubtedly to be numbered among the colossal operatic treasures of the second half of the 20th century, along with Joan Sutherland's soprano, and I count myself extraordinarily fortunate to have encountered it on so many memorable occasions.


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