Director Ron Howard has been alternating projects of late, going from heartfelt musical documentaries (Made in America, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years) to middlingly received dramas (In the Heart of the Sea, Inferno). Now he’s bounced from the Star Wars story Solo to O Sole Mio.
His subject in Pavarotti is of course Luciano Pavarotti (1935 – 2007), the larger-than-life operatic tenor who cavorted with royals and celebrities, raised millions for charity, and helped make opera popular with the masses; the first Three Tenors recording from 1990 remains the best-selling classical album in history.
“My father was a baker and a tenor,” says the singer in one of the many archival interviews. So he might have gone into biscotti, had not his mother told him that he had a better voice than his dad. After years of study, he got a break in 1963, replacing an ailing Giuseppe Di Stefano at the Royal Opera House in London. Pavarotti was on his way.
This isn’t quite a warts-and-all biography; little mention is made of his reputation as the “king of cancellations,” and the fact that the Lyric Opera of Chicago ended a 15-year relationship with him after he backed out of more than half of 41 scheduled appearances there. And his marriage to a former personal assistant younger than the three daughters from his first marriage, and the familial rift it caused, is discussed only late in the film, after we’ve already formed a pretty positive picture of the man.
But there was much to love about the mischievous, happy-go-lucky performer. And the quintessential moment has to be footage of that 1990 concert in Rome, performed the night before the FIFA World Cup Final.
Pavarotti is joined by José Carreras and Plácido Domingo. The three tenors exchange impish glances, egging each other on as they sing. Conductor Zubin Mehta looks thrilled to be a witness to this historic performance. The joy rolls off the stage in waves. You probably won’t be able to sing along, but good luck suppressing a smile.