The first time I ever went to the Metropolitan Opera, on March 5, 1974, I went to see Luciano Pavarotti sing Nemorino in L’esilir d’amore. I was not disappointed. He was already a star, but not the huge crossover phenomena he would become, with the Three Tenors, and those somewhat cheesy stadium concerts he tirelessly performed.
Over the next two decades I probably saw him about a dozen times, perhaps most memorably in Verdi’s Un ballo in machera and Giordano’s Andrea Chenier. He almost never disappointed. He is fated to be always be compared to Placido Domingo, beauty vs. brains, and Pavarotti could never match the Spanish tenor’s intelligence, gritty musicality, and adventurousness in repertoire. But where Domingo was admired, Pavarotti, with his burnished tone, gorgeous high notes, and all of the mannerisms of the classic Italian tenor, was loved.
Pavarotti was the most popular opera singer since Caruso, and like Caruso, New York City and the Metropolitan Opera played a crucial role in establishing him as the dominant singer of his time. For all of his successes, it is the last time I saw him at the Met, in 1995, I think, that stands most vividly in the mind.
He was nearing the end of his career, and he foolishly attempted to recreate one of his greatest early successes, Donizetti’s La Fille du regiment, which contains a famous aria with nine consecutive high Cs. He couldn’t do it, and after two attempts his voice utterly cracked, in a way I have never heard in an opera house. There were gasps, but no boos, and some applause, the sort you would give to an old boxer, knocked to the canvas in a fight everyone knew was one fight too many.
He was probably the most popular male singer since Elvis.