Thursday 16 June 2016

Luciano PAVAROTTI: The Essential Pavarotti

(#409: 23 June 1990, 1 week; 7 July 1990, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Rigoletto, Act 3 - "La donna è mobile"/La Bohème, Act 1 - "Che gelida manina"/Tosca, Act 3 - "E lucevan le stelle"/Turandot, Act 3 - Nessun dorma!/L'elisir d'amore, Act 2 - "Una furtiva lagrima"/Martha, Act 3 "M'appari"/Carmen, Act 2 - "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée"/Pagliacci, Act 1 - "Vesti la giubba"/Il Trovatore, Act 3 - "Di quella pira"/Caruso/Mattinata/Aprile/Core 'ngrato/Soirées musicales - La Danza/Volare/Funiculì, funiculà/Torna a Surriento/'O sole mio

Was Hillsborough the excuse needed – that is, needed by vested interests - for excluding ordinary people from the game of football? I could go on at some length about this but would instead refer you to Adrian Tempany’s remarkable, poignant and deadly damning book And The Sun Shines Now. Tempany writes about that Sunday afternoon and its long and agonising ramifications in immense and frequently painful detail. He speaks with the unquestionable authority of someone who was actually present at Hillsborough and who indeed almost died in the crush, and his account of the subsequent years of action – or, in some vested interests, determined inaction – reads like a never-to-be-written David Peace novel (and Peace himself has said that this is the one topic about which he can never write; to get a hint of what he might have said, read the account of the 1971 New Year’s Ibrox disaster in Red Or Dead – and even then you wouldn’t get half of what the impact of Hillsborough was.

After Hillsborough, however, football was “legitimised”; Dr Karl Miller in the London Review of Books wrote of Paul Gascoigne as “strange-eyed, pink-faced, fairhaired, tense and upright, a priapic monolith in the Mediterranean sun – a marvellous equivocal sight.” Terraces became all-seaters. Ticket prices shot up to meet the need to attract international playing stars and maintain satellite TV coverage deals. The Premier League – essentially four or five “big” teams and fifteen or sixteen patsies – was established as a monolith in its own priapic right. In that same year – 1992 – Fever Pitch: A Fan’s Life, written by Nick Hornby, an English graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge, was published and some voices whispered about the game now being “acceptable” (certainly Fever Pitch is very well-written and does considerably more to convert unbelievers than the same author’s subsequent writing, both factual and fictitious, about music).

But finance, international finance, became the prime concern. Never mind the games, even, let’s get those Manchester United T-shirts worn in Vladivostok. Teams became uprooted from their origins – in some cases (Wimbledon FC) literally – and degenerated into brands. The game suffered, too, with too many needless fixtures added in for the convenience of television viewers, especially the floating voters of TV who didn’t fundamentally like football but would tune in every now and then. As the art of defending turned into a science, something that could be taught and studied, defenders became stronger and goals became fewer; hence the endless, listless 0-0 draws which constitute most of a Premier League season, or the cynical 0-0 draws, the only purpose of which was to maintain a result, a profile, rather than entertain the people who had paid good money to come and watch it.

No child grows up dreaming of being involved in a solid 0-0 draw. They want goals, and lots of them; they want drama, excitement, and not the stapled-on kind of “drama” which constitutes penalty shootouts and which does not constitute football as any sane person would recognise it. Hence it is almost irrelevant that Leicester City is owned by a Thai billionaire with plenty of resources to pump into the club; this past season they were the underdogs, the one to act as a team rather than an assemblage of sullen, entitled individuals, the one to play together while the other teams, by and large, primped and posed.

One may look at the current events in Marseille and find varying reasons – the Russian hardcore put them up to it, the French “ultras” were having a go at the supporters, the security and facilities in the city were laughably non-existent – for them, and perhaps wonder why the forced gentrification of football needed to happen in England – the other three constituents of the United Kingdom tell a different story, or stories - if this was the result.

But yes, it is now all about international stars and their heroic tales, their defiance in the face of impossible odds, their lives and doings off the pitch. And it is not quite what was there before. Most people who in the old days would have paid next to nothing to go to a home game, even by a comparatively major team, now stay in and watch the games on Sky Sports or online (or on their smartphone), or listen to them on the radio. The notion of community – that this is a rite of maturity to which parents take children to learn how a team of players can work together for a greater good – has vanished.

At the 1989-90 bend in the river, one of the major turning points could be ascribed to whoever in the sports department of BBC Television had the idea to use “Nessun Dorma!” as the theme to their 1990 World Cup coverage.

* * * *

In the second half of 1990, plans were also being drawn up for a commercial radio station devoted to classical music. Although, test broadcasts of birdsong notwithstanding, Classic FM did not come fully on air until September 1992, important moves were being made, mergers agreed, backers sought. The subtext was clear: this would essentially be Radio 3 without all the difficult bits, including any obligation to provide a public service, to make things happen rather than reflecting the shinier parts of them.

It has always been the easy route to fame and fortune – it is certainly not confined to the last half-decade or so – to let people off the hook and tell them not to bother with that difficult and troublesome “new” music that they find so problematic, or, in Classic FM’s case, skip the best part of a century between Debussy and Arvo Part and forget all that awkward German and Austrian stuff that happened in between. This benign philistinism worked in parallel with Hornby’s attitude to pop music; a catastrophic misreading of the common good as all people should like this music, that work of art, and that if they exhibit the slightest hint of independence of thought they are to be excommunicated, damned, considered “weird” or worse; in terms of which the old Soviet Union would have been proud, it was a case of art for the people and anything different was imperialism’s most stalwart servant.

That belief has subsequently ossified into gospel. Radio must only play one of two hundred or so “proscribed” records for fear that the casual listener might immediately switch to another station at the faintest scent of anything unfamiliar or different. One cannot move for newspapers and magazines weekly offering canons, lists, minimal rejigging of the same basic feeding matter. Anybody wanting anything more than crazy golf and Muzak is automatically Unmutual.

It is true that such things as Gorecki’s 3rd and Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood (the remake featuring Tom Waits, alas, rather than the immeasurably superior 1975 original) would not have found such great commercial success without Classic FM’s patronage. But the station seeks to follow rather than lead, to echo rather than to initiate, and its millions of listeners, wanting something quiet and undemanding to listen to in the car or office or kitchen, are happy to abide by that. Is pointing this out “spoiling things,” and, if so, whose spoils are they?

* * * *

The Godfather, Part III opened in cinemas just before Christmas 1990. Coppola was not keen on a third instalment of a story which he thought had been adequately told in the first two films, but he needed the money to stave off bankruptcy. When I first saw it, in a nearly empty cinema in the West End on the first weekend of its release, I thought it was terrible. Pacino had made Michael Corleone look aged, bored, listless, distracted. Sofia Coppola, as an actress, had not yet perfected the blank space that she would subsequently put to great use as a film director. As Robert Duvall had declined repeating the part, primarily for financial reasons, George Hamilton, of all blank spaces, was suddenly, and (in)effectively, Tom Hagen.

I thought that the central plot, involving laundered Vatican money, was ludicrous and flimsy. The villains were largely cartoon cut-outs and so the ritual mass assassinations at the end rang hollow. Only Andy Garcia, as Vincent, demonstrated any vitality or energy, as if to remind Michael how a living Sonny might have run things.

There is some improvement if you watch it as part of the DVD Godfather Saga trilogy; Walter Murch’s editing had been curtailed in a rush to meet Christmas opening times at cinemas, and on the DVD much interesting additional material is restored, giving us a better picture of Michael in his autumnal musings (since it is still, ultimately, Michael’s story).

Watching it now, however, in tandem with its two predecessors, one wonders at the brutal efficiency with which an organisation will endeavour to protect itself, as well as wondering what it is protecting, apart from a dull obeisance, a ritual, a closing of doors to the outside world, including other, parallel organisations. Indeed, parallels with the current state of the United States of America may not be far-fetched. One notices how anybody who demonstrates the slightest independence of thought is efficiently removed from life’s equation. Not that Barzini, Moe Greene, Hyman Roth or Fredo were by and large good people. But one does get the sense of possible futures being blocked off.

The real problem for me now in the third Godfather movie is Joey Zasa. We know – though are never shown proof – that he is a rather nasty piece of work, peddling drugs to the blacks and Hispanics, turning Little Italy into a slum, and that something has to be done about him. We also know, given their long-term mutual hatred, that Vincent will be the one to do what has to be done.

The trouble, however, is that Joe Mantegna’s Joey is too good. He saunters into and steals every scene he’s in, even his own death in the procession. He is hip, cool, smart and arrogantly funny, and next to him the ageing Michael appears as though a dinosaur. We want more of him, maybe a lifetime of him. If Coppola had wanted to make a good sequel, he could have cut out all the killings and big setpieces altogether and made Godfather II a buddy-enemy comedy where Joey and Vincent loathe each other but are forced to work together for the greater good.

But there is that weakness – imposed or instinctive – for the calamitous, operatic finale, played out against a production of Cavalleria Rusticana, that earlier bloody tale about betrayal set in Sicily, an early move towards the verismo trend which overtook Italian opera in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – a move away from romps about kings, queens and gods and towards the tragedies of ordinary people. The question is: would a Michael Corleone ever have settled for being ordinary? That he did not explains his ultimate, lonely tragedy.

* * * *

All this, perhaps unfairly, converges on the 1990 phenomenon of Luciano Pavarotti, on the grounds of a compilation album which spans his work from 1971-89. After all, the younger Pavarotti had fondly nurtured dreams of being a goalkeeper before being reluctantly persuaded to take up music as a career option instead.

The compilation was advertised on television, and I note that my copy still bears a football-shaped sticker advertising both “Nessun Dorma!” and its use in Grandstand. The notion may have been to attract people who would not ordinarily be attracted to opera or classical music in general. It was the first classical number one album, certainly the first number one album by an Italian act, and the first number one album to be sung entirely in other languages (Italian and French).

Before we go any further, I should just like to point out that, as albums go, The Essential Pavarotti is a tremendous record, one of the best you’re likely to encounter in this whole run, and I would recommend visiting your local charity or thrift shop immediately to rescue a copy. You can see from the above track listing that it has every obvious song and aria you could imagine in this context; and yet this album contains some of the deepest and most highly realised music that has ever been composed or performed.

The album divides evenly between operatic arias and popular songs, in no particular chronological performance order. One can view how the slightly reedy voice of seventies Pavarotti evolved into the confident tenor of the eighties; the album’s first half cleverly begins and ends with recitatives from Verdi and one can witness how the rather stiff, haughty tenor of “La donna è mobile” evolves into the imperious, percussive and absolutely commanding voice of “Di quella pira.” Overall, however, the impression, as Lena remarked to me, is one of a soul singer, a genuine artist. Not the Glenn Gould thing with the Artist being their own Artwork, but someone who turns up on time to the studio or the opera house, has rehearsed their lines well – for opera demands that great singers should also be great actors – knows their art inside out and is technically and emotionally capable of giving the song as good a performance as possible. A soul singer because the only point of comparison that we could find with Pavarotti was Levi Stubbs; someone who gives a definitive delivery of every song they sing and who more importantly make you believe everything they are singing, even if you don’t know the language in which they are singing or know enough about opera to realise that they are singing something completely ludicrous. Pavarotti’s performance on “Che gelida manina” brought, of all singers, Matt Bellamy of Muse to our minds, not so much because of any vocal resemblance, but because there is a similar commitment to the epic, the definitive and grand statement – even when, as in La Bohème, intimacy is largely required from the lead performers.

As I say, no obvious song is missed out, and perhaps no opera plot (prior to the twentieth century) was too obvious. Even when they are not comic operas – and it is quite startling to realise that even Carmen was considered one in its day – their plots, even when dealing with everyday cuckolded clowns, were elaborate, fantastical myths, all kings, queens and dukes, or the sudden giving and equally sudden withdrawal of love, with much blood and gore mixed in, not to mention demonstrably artificial plot or character twists. This was no different from Shakespeare in his Globe Theatre days, or for that matter from the ancient worlds of Plautus or Aristophanes; as Game Of Thrones has demonstrated, humans still need fantastical stories, legends, myths – something which is bigger than them but makes them feel yet bigger, since every hero and heroine has a fatal flaw. Stories are what keep us going, nourish and sustain us.

As fine as the showpieces from Tosca and Pagliacci are in Pavarotti’s hands, he is even more impressive when he turns the volume down. In this collection you will find no sign of his interpretations of Gluck or Haydn, or for that matter Schoenberg, but the comic opera performances are quite touching. Of these, Donizetti’s “Una furtiva lagrima” is the more outstanding in that Pavarotti does not go for the big finish but keeps the tone medium, meditative – his character is wondering whether the solitary tear he saw her cry means something, represents love. Even in his closing accapella feature he exhibits great technical and emotional control.

It is impossible for me to dismiss or belittle this music as it is in my DNA; this is music with which I grew up, some of which I experienced first-hand (for many of these songs are derived from Neapolitan music, some sung in Neapolitan slang). That also goes for the album’s popular/populist second half. His “Core ‘ngrato” is a tremendously touching and fulfilling performance. Only his 1984 “Volare” seems a slight miscue. Performing under Henry Mancini’s direction, the song starts (and indeed ends) like an outtake from Scott 4 with echoing chants and free-floating strings. It gradually assumes some form of recognisable order as it proceeds, but the impression here is one of a polite battle; Pavarotti clearly wants to sing the song his way, but Mancini is equally determined to do as he does. It doesn’t quite finish in a draw. Nevertheless, I note that the closing two songs, both performed brilliantly, were the foundations of consecutive number ones by Elvis Presley – like Pavarotti, born in 1935 – and given how both these young men idolised Mario Lanza, the penny drops; this is the record Elvis would have made if rock ‘n’ roll had never happened and he had been given the opportunity to take better care of himself.

But the song at which we must pause, and in many ways the most remarkable song on the record, is the one which sounds utterly of its time. “Caruso” was written and originally recorded in 1986 by the Italian singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla. It was inspired by thoughts of the last days of the great tenor, as he looks in the eyes of his beloved (by now, in Caruso’s case, it was one Dorothy Park Benjamin) fully aware that he is about to die. Several songs on this collection find Pavarotti staring in the face of imminent death – even Turandot is about the need to know the answer to three riddles, on joy of royal marriage or pain of death (you see what I mean about intrinsically silly plots – Pavarotti transcends the silliness and turns “Nessun dorma!” into a defiant cry of a challenge to the whole world; “I WILL WIN [with or without your help]!”) – but only “Caruso” finds its protagonist actually approaching the end of his life.

“Poi all'improvviso uscì una lacrima (furtiva?) e lui credette di affogare,” he sings, which means: “But then, a tear fell, and he believed he was drowning.” The song’s second half is an adaptation of a Neapolitan love ballad from 1930 entitled "Dicitencello vuje" and, in an affecting echo of the other end of the second half of this record – the compilation is even structured like a football match – the word “Surriento” is heard.  The chorus is a cry of love, noting that “It is a chain by now that heats the blood inside of our veins.”

Pavarotti recorded his version in 1988, accompanied by not much more than a Fairlight by the sound of it, and it is breathtaking; his yearning sounds deeper and higher than anywhere else on the record, and we could not help but think, yet again, of Billy Mackenzie. The free kick somehow lands in the middle of the New Pop square, the singer’s performance is as great as any of the truly great performances to be encountered in this tale. The nearly sixty-eight minutes of this record go by as a whisker, and you forget that this is supposed to be 1990, the year in which so much of our present-day pain was allowed to be legitimised, but are never allowed to forget, in this week of decision, what European music and European musicians have done to enliven and indeed enable the art of this land.