We've had some illustrious singers die in the last few months, and I haven't had all that much to say about them. Jerry Hadley I'd at least seen in person, so I could say something about my personal experience of him. I missed Beverly Sills entirely, though I saw Regine Crespin - once - at San Francisco Opera in the mid-1980s. I knew very little about voices and opera at the time and I hardly remember a thing about her performance. I also managed to miss seeing Luciano Pavarotti in person, as I'd missed Birgit Nilsson.
I know Nilsson, Crespin, and Pavarotti on record, of course; Sills somewhat less so because her repertory is not exactly my thing. And, of course, I've followed Pavarotti's career over the last 12 years or so, as his appearances turned into caricatures of what they had once been. Accounts in the press and blogosphere mention recitals where he could barely remember what he was singing and had to rely on the score; for his 1990s Met appearances as Calaf, he had to be helped around the stage by attendants.
He hadn't sung at San Francisco since 1988, and I seem to recall there were issues of some kind that kept him away. I'm tremendously sorry I never saw him, as I'm sorry I missed Nilsson and, especially, Leontyne Price. Records, even great ones, don't tell the whole story, ever; I always want to get a sense of the physical impact of a voice heard in a hall.
For all the variability of his declining years, at his best Pavarotti was unquestionably among the greatest Italian tenors of the 20th century. His plangent, slightly reedy voice couldn't be mistaken for anyone else's. He had Italian style in his bones, from the effortless line to the ring at the top of his range to his splendid diction. Alex Ross describes some of this far better than I can.
But you should listen for yourself. Alex links to several clips of Pavarotti, all of which I heard earlier today. "Che gelida manina" and "Una furtiva lagrima" are perfectly lovely, models of style and beautiful singing. And both give him ample opportunity to charm and beguile the audience, which he could do so well. The audience goes absolutely nuts after "Che gelida manina," and with good reason.
I feared that "E lucevan le stelle," so easily exaggerated or overdone, would bring out the worst in Pavarotti, but no. It's a Golden Age performance, despairing and passionate, dignified, magnificently sung, and it brought me to tears.