Luciano Pavarotti stands out among opera singers in the late 20th century. A big man with an amazing voice, a lack of discipline undermined his oversized abilities; internationally famous, he had little interest in bringing new audiences to the opera house, instead going for the big bucks in arena concerts.
“Pavarotti,” Ron Howard’s new documentary, sticks mostly to the positives while skimming over the negatives of the tenor’s life and career. It’s an engaging film, filled with vintage snapshots, interviews with friends and former colleagues, and, most of all, that marvelously distinctive voice, with all the emotion it could convey. The lovable teddy-bear persona is on full display, too, the endearing, enduring joy at being who and where he was.
Among the best moments are interviews with his first wife, Adua Veroni, and their three daughters, speaking feelingly of both the joys and difficulties of their family life. The section about his stillborn son, Riccardo, by his second wife, Nicoletta Mantovani, is touching.
There are curious omissions, though, such as the very existence of the remarkably bad 1982 motion picture “Yes, Giorgio.” We learn how Herbert Breslin, Pavarotti’s longtime manager, helped make him a star (responsible for “Giorgio,” he blamed others for its flopping), but not how they broke up, or the tell-all book Breslin wrote with critic Anne Midgette (who contributes some of the most cogent observations in the movie). Breslin does get in some digs at the man he blames for that breakup, the impresario Tibor Rudas, whose surname he childishly mispronounces.
I sang on the stage of Lyric Opera of Chicago with Pavarotti many times as a member of the regular chorus. Pavarotti was generous about autographing photos (he even brought a supply of color headshots with him to the theater), but more difficult in other ways, including making advances on female colleagues.
Gluttony was among his sins. He gobbled up food prepared as props for operas and was known for asking his dinner companions, “Are you going to eat this?” as he impaled delectables from their plates on his fork, whether he was dining with an opera staffer or the Princess of Wales.
Pavarotti, who didn’t read music, was lazy about learning it, and, as a result, cancellation-prone. The great soprano Joan Sutherland, who helped the tenor greatly in his early career, complained about it. Ardis Krainik, general director of the Lyric, made international headlines in 1989 when she fired Pavarotti from the company after he missed 26 of 41 scheduled performances. Late in his career he erred in competing with his younger self, singing roles for which he was no longer vocally suited. That all goes unmentioned, too.
Howard could have given a fuller portrait of his subject without diminishing his stature. For all his faults — the badly dyed hair, the constant demands on others — Pavarotti was one of the greats. To hear that golden voice is to forgive almost all.
What “Pavarotti” • Three stars out of four • Run time 1:54 • Rating PG-13 • Content Language, thematic material