Thoughts on Luciano Pavarotti from all the way back in 1979, when the whole "Three Tenors" thing was still a dreadful idea waiting to be hatched
I'm going to have my say on Luciano later. However, the best piece I can even imagine on the subject has already been written, was written in fact as far back as 1979--and no matter that the career went on for another quarter-century. (My God, this was even before "The Three Tenors"!) Unfortunately, I can't offer you the whole piece, since I no longer have even my tattered old copy to type it from. (I have actually typed the whole piece out in order to share it with someone.) It appeared in the June 1979 issue of High Fidelity magazine, which unfortunately seems to exist in the digital universe only as an echo.
However, thanks to blogger Jaime J. Weinman, who writes a blog called "Something Old, Nothing New: Thoughts on Popular Culture and Unpopular Culture" and seems to be as wise as he is sturdy-fingered, I can offer you some bits that will give you the gist. Jaime apparently typed out the excerpts that follow for a 2004 entry titled Conrad L. Osborne: Best Opera Critic Ever. (I've taken the liberty of rejiggering his version a bit, to align it with my recollection of how the piece appeared in print.)
"Reviewing a very mediocre recording of Pagliacci starring Luciano Pavarotti," Jaime explained, "Osborne wrote a long, funny, almost stream-of-consciousness piece about Pavarotti's ascent to pop-stardom and the descent of opera recording (and, in many ways, opera itself) into blandness. Here he writes about Pavarotti and his decline since an early, brilliant performance in Lucia di Lammermoor."
[from "The Diary of a CavPag Madman"
by Conrad L. Osborne
High Fidelity, June 1979]
MUSINGS ON LUCIANO'S PROGRESS
I think he'd want us to call him Luciano, don't you? . . .
Now here's Luciano singing the Duke in a big splash of a Rigoletto . . . still pretty good, at points brilliant, but the tops of some phrases ("saro per te" in the duet, the big toughie in "Parmi veder") do have a disappointingly constricted sound. He moves with an oddly dainty gait. In the last act, he makes a point of feeling up Maddalena while leering cutely at the audience. Luciano has learned to keep on being Luciano while the opera is trying to take place. The audience would rather see Luciano than an opera, so it's total success. . . . [That's mezzo-soprano Anna di Stasio pictured in Luciano's, er, clutches. The pictures, by the way, are not from the original article. This is just part of the service that DWT provides, without additional charge.]
Later yet, at a Boheme, I really can't hear Luciano's top at all, except when the accompaniment is vide or he happens to catch hold of a phrase riding nicely from below, as at the opening of "O Mimi, tu piu." To put it bluntly, it's a bust, but the audience reaction is wild--this is a personal appearance event. I begin to form a rather unappetizing image of a huge, mincing galoot with a pretty, medium-sized voice that can't make climaxes, kneading his handerchief and appealing to the audience for sympathy for all his hard work and sweet personality.
Since then I have heard Luciano sing high and small, low and large. . . .
On all the TV shows, it's of course much harder to tell about the balance of the voice. But you can tell that singing, good or bad, is tough labor (indeed, Luciano shows off the labor just a bit) and that Luciano is a genuinely likable and amusing man with a sharp sense of his own appeal. Also that he has lost weight. Artistic failures and successes cease to have any relative values, since the audience and colleagues are parts of the act and behave as if each effort produced a triumph of absolutely equal and predictable proportions. The thought does occur that "live" audiences are learning the lesson. [Pictured here is the famous handkerchief (see above) taking a bow.]
FINAL QUERY BEFORE LISTENING
TO ALLEGED PAG
How does it happen that a charming and popular lyric tenor, marvelously suited to parts like Edgardo, Alfredo, Faust, and Werther when in peak condition, decides that such roles as Calaf, Canio, Cavaradossi, Manrico, Radames, and Enzo are his Fach at the very time, almost to the hour, that his upper range is losing its juice and open-throatedness? The timing is devilish.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I was the music editor of High Fidelity at the time "The Diary" appeared, and I was the one who asked C.L.O. if he might be interested in reviewing Decca/London's new coupling of Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci and Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana. He really didn't much want to do music criticism anymore, and in general the things I got him to do involved off-the-beaten-path repertory, operas I either knew he loved (he did, for example, a spectacular piece on Charpentier's Louise) or hoped he might be curious about. Which meant that it had been quite a while since he'd tackled any standard-rep for the magazine.
Jaime Weinman sums it up nicely:
[H]is reviews for High Fidelity represent some of the best criticism ever written about opera, about recording, and above all about singing. As a singer himself (a baritone), Osborne knows an incredible amount about voices and how they work, and manages to convey that knowledge to laymen like me in a way that's enlightening, funny, and fascinating. He's tough--unlike many critics, he never overlooks a vocal flaw or downplays the importance of a singer's bad technique--but he's fair, in that he always gives a singer credit for what he or she does well and never criticizes things that aren't there. His discussions of the works themselves are just as good. I would write more about his superb writing, but then I'd run out of room to quote it.
About all the credit I can claim for the "CavPag Madman" piece is giving C.L.O. the records to review--unless you count getting the thing into print, and getting it into print intact. (In fact, this was no small feat, but that's another story. Okay, if you must know, I had to threaten to quit. I knew it was a weak bargaining chip--the next time I used it, or at the latest the time after that, it was taken not as a threat but as an offer, and accepted--but this time, at least, it worked, more or less.)
I do recall talking to Conrad while he was working on the, er, "review," and being told that it was taking a strange form, which he projected would represent "either a breakthrough in criticism or the final flipping out of C.L.O." (I suggested there was no reason why it couldn't be both.)
I'm going to give the last word here to Jaime, who began his blog post:
If I were in the publishing business, one thing I'd be trying to push through would be a collection of the opera and record criticism of Conrad L. Osborne. (This may guarantee that I'll never be in the publishing business, but let that pass.)
I couldn't agree more, Jaime. I wish I knew how to make it happen.