The last Italian tenor

June 29, 1993

After what was by all accounts a phenomenal performance Saturday before a crowd of 500,000 in New York's Central Park, opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti is entitled to borrow Mark Twain's legendary retort to the press: "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."

The Italian tenor hadn't been pronounced dead, exactly, but much of the reportage concerning him recently has strongly implied his stage career is nearing its end. For an opera singer, that's akin to having one foot in the grave.

Mr. Pavarotti, who is 57, canceled several performances earlier this year because of ill health, and his performance of Verdi's "Don Carlo" at Milan's La Scala drew whistles of disapproval last year -- an indignity that would have been unthinkable just a few seasons ago. Moreover, The Sun's music critic, Stephen Wigler, notes that the tenor's most recent recorded performance, as Alfredo in Verdi's "La Traviata," was disappointingly flat and "without the bloom in his voice of even a few years ago."

Such intimations of mortality had kept the press guessing about how Mr. Pavarotti would fare at last weekend's free concert. If he had canceled or sung badly, the pressure to announce his retirement would have been greater than ever.

Mr. Pavarotti occupies an almost unprecedented position in today's music world. First, he is a man in a field in which women traditionally have been the greatest stars. There's simply no word for male singers equivalent to the term diva, the female goddess of the opera world. Second, though there have been other tenors who have captured the public imagination -- the prototype in this century was Enrico Caruso -- this is the first time in memory there hasn't been a clear successor waiting in the wings.

Today's other two major tenors, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, are both natives of Spain. Mr. Domingo's darker voice may be suitable to a wider repertory, and Mr. Carreras' youthful good looks may better suit him to portray opera's romantic heroes, but neither possesses Mr. Pavarotti's authentic Italian pedigree, teddy-bear charm or the ringing top notes that have made him "King of the High Cs."

For the moment, at least, Mr. Pavarotti appears to be that most unique of endangered species, the last of the line of great Italian tenors.

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