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Pavarotti Captured the Sublime and Vulgar Sides of Opera

His extremes are more intense than Björling’s refined intimacy — cheaper, even. But the life force — the potent, perspiring sincerity that would be even clearer once he got on TV — is thrilling. When he sings that he’ll tell Mimì in a couple of words who he is, Pavarotti’s high note is so arrestingly golden that it finally makes sense that, when he asks if he should keep talking, she’s speechless. You’d be, too.

Go to 3:28 in the recording above. Just before the spectacular climax of the aria, he digs into a single word — “stanza” — with such conviction that you don’t quite know what to do; you will remember the tangy way he pronounces the first vowel to the end of your days.

It’s brash, that “stanza”; it’s almost obscene. And yet it’s right. Opera is certainly delicate, intelligent, tasteful — but at the same time it’s the opposite of those things. Pavarotti is our most compelling modern reminder of that.

His “Three Tenors” colleague, Plácido Domingo, appears as a warmhearted talking head in the film. While Pavarotti’s career seemed, to many, to descend irrevocably toward the stadium as if to damnation, for Mr. Domingo the 1990s ended up being a blip. They didn’t distract too much at the time from his “real” operatic work, and once that heady era was over, he smoothly returned to the opera house.

In other words, he did everything correctly.

Still, if I were fleeing to the proverbial desert island, I’d sacrifice the whole of Mr. Domingo’s output to preserve that single “stanza” of Pavarotti’s.

Anyone who has been an intelligent, responsible, diligently overachieving older sibling will sympathize with what I see as Mr. Domingo’s predicament here. He’s achieved a longevity probably unmatched in operatic history; he reads music well enough to teach himself more than 150 roles; he ambitiously added conducting and opera-house administration to his resume. He is the very model of an opera star, everything a critic could ask for.

Yet by conjuring the full range of why we love the art form — the sometimes guilty mixture of high and low, elevated and crass, purity and sweat — it is Pavarotti who brings us to the secret, beating heart of opera.

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