Luciano Pavarotti left such a mixed legacy at his 2007 death that the new Ron Howard documentary, Pavarotti, Genius Is Forever, can’t help being approached with both nostalgia and weariness — especially among Philadelphians.
The film’s ending credits acknowledge Pavarotti’s multiyear relationship with the city where he gave some of his most celebrated performances — at Academy of Music recitals in the 1970s and early ’80s, for instance, and with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the early ’90s under Riccardo Muti — and where he was particularly beloved by South Philadelphia’s tenor-loving Italian community.
Pavarotti opens Friday at select theaters including the AMC Voorhees, the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, and Warrington Crossing 22.
The superstar tenor also staged the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition in Philadelphia periodically between 1980 and 1996, a mixed blessing for Opera Philadelphia, which hosted three of those events.
He worked so tirelessly with the contestants on their vocal technique that he couldn’t decide who would win. So he declared them all winners — at one point 40 of them — creating monumental casting problems because winners were all awarded a staged appearance with him.
It was "a perfect thing that turned into a perfect storm,” as David Devan, now general director and president of the local opera company describes the relationship, which previous director Robert B. Driver severed prior to the final competition.
Here and elsewhere, Pavarotti was a glittery presence known to leave chaos in his wake. But the complicated issues are mostly crowded out of Howard’s broad-strokes documentary about the tenor from provincial Italy who achieved global fame far beyond the opera house.
The film discusses the public disillusionment that came with his womanizing and questionable career decisions, such as high-profile concerts with vocally incompatible pop stars, including U2′s Bono. There’s no mention of his tax evasion charge and acquittal, of accusations of him lip-syncing to recordings in live performance – or of the phoned-in appearances when you wished he had been lip-syncing.
The new documentary doesn’t whitewash the great singer as much as it presents him on his best days. And those days were great, with a visceral connection between his vibrant voice, the great music he was singing, and the listener. He was the dominant presence in arena-filling performances of the Three Tenors, cultivating an audience well beyond the opera house.
Pavarotti genuinely liked Philadelphia, and he had that kind of common touch the city will always embrace.
But did he realize how much he drove Opera Philadelphia, then a smaller boutique company, to the breaking point with his hundreds of competition contestants?
Devan wasn’t around for the drama but says that, in hindsight, it’s an evenly balanced score card:
"People got to hear one of the great artists of the day. He brought notoriety to the city and to the opera company. The basic instinct was to support the development of emerging talent.
"But the kind of vortex he brought to it made it hard for the company to develop the assets it needed to move forward. No company should rely on one artist.”