Friday, August 30, 2019

Pavarotti Sings Again

The movie  Pavarotti captures the sheer delight that Luciano Pavarotti inspired during his career as the reigning tenor of his times. The film is a documentary of sorts directed by Ron Howard, who has already succeeded in a second career as a director following his acting days, when, most memorably he played Andy Griffith's son in the TV series of the 60s.

It reminded me of just how fantastic Pavarotti was. His voice was absolutely beautiful and he seemed adept in using it to give extra quality to the famous operatic arias he sang. He first appeared of course in his native Italy and then Covent Garden. When he came to the Met in the early 70s, he costarred with Joan Sutherland, the Australian soprano who made singing bel canto scales and trills as easy as he made the great challenges of the tenor repertory.

We saw them in a grand performance of Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment, a show-off bauble that exists today, or should exist, to be revived only when singers of the calibre of Sutherland and Pavarotti are available. Sure, there are nine High Cs for the tenor and likely a similar challenge for the soprano, but the special appeal of this duo was the ease with which they appeared to produce these amazing sounds. No one wants to see a singer show the difficulty of performing these arias; Pavarotti always seemed to be holding notes for amazing lengths and Sutherland negotiated the exposed coloratura of Lucia di Lammermoor's Mad Scene without seeming to try.

The reason I called the film a documentary of sorts is that it mostly presents a wholly positive view of Luciano. Even his affair with a far younger woman in his later years, which led to his divorce from the mother of three of his children, is treated sympathetically--while pointing out that this did diminish his popularity in Italy, his first wife seemed understanding about what happened. I also chuckled about the omission of his disastrous solitary venture into starring in a movie.

But the high point of the picture is definitely the famous Three Tenors concert in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome on the eve of the World Cup football (soccer) final. Aside from the gorgeous singing, what is most enjoyable is the sheer joy that Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras, along with Zubin Mehta, exuded while producing incredibly wonderful music. The indulgence of those three magnificent voices doing O Sole Mio was complemented by their extraspecial rendition of Nessun Dorma

There were shots and snippets of Caruso, but although Caruso's fame was heightened by his making some of the first recordings, the somewhat limited quality of those early preserved sounds couldn't compare with modern technology. There was also a clip of DiStefano, who also came off as a lesser singer. It probably would have been the same with others--Gigli, Bjoerling, Martinelli--and we'll never really know how they would stack up with Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras.

I also learned from the film. I had never credited Pavarotti with his knowledge of singing technique derived from his two excellent teachers. To me, he just seemed to be a natural, needing no training, but that wasn't true. He had worked hard to be able to perform at the exceedingly high level he achieved. The film included many of his most famous and favorite operatic pieces and reminded me of just how extraordinary he was. We were so fortunate to be able to hear him in person and also on recordings and on television for all those years.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Funny Man Not So Funny

Just finished reading a bio given to me as a present, Funny Man, by Patrick McGilligan, which is about Mel Brooks. It definitely holds your interest and even provides a laugh or two every so often. But while Brooks, still kicking in his early 90s, does not fit the sad clown-comedian profile perhaps most famously depicted in Leoncavallo's always delightful opera, I Pagliacci, the story does bear a resemblance to Billy Crystal's film, Mr. Saturday Night.

I always enjoyed Brooks's movies because he tended to push at the edges of being outrageous. The bio confirms that he only succeeded in producing top-flite films a few times. To me, The Producers will always stand apart, and I mean the original movie, not the musical, which I've not seen (the film of the musical did not get the raves received by the stage version). One reason it was so good was the perfect casting--Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Dick Shawn, Kenneth Mars. 

Young Frankenstein, which I hadn't known was Gene Wilder's conception, had great moments, again with players including Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, and Madeline Kahn making it work. And "The Inquisition" number in History of the World--Part I, performed by Brooks, offends a whole lot of people with panache and severely black humor.

He did produce 12 films altogether, not that many for a long career and there are other episodes in movies I've never seen in full, like the great song-and-dance scene in his re-make of To Be or Not to Be, where he and wife Anne Bancroft perform "Sweet Georgia Brown" in Polish. His marriage to Bancroft, which lasted more than 40 years until her death, was his second and seems to be one of the few really happy aspects of his life. 

It's also highly satisfying to compare Bancroft's career--always a fantastic actress, who was recognized as such, and who wisely kept her career separate from Brooks's until that song and dance late in both of their stories. One of the most moving events I read about for the first time was that Paul Simon sang "Mrs. Robinson" with acoustic guitar at a memorial for Bancroft at the Shubert Theater. She had many great roles but that's the one most will remember.

And last but definitely first, is the routine developed as a party piece by Carl Reiner, the perfect straight man (also still going strong, at 97), and Brooks--The 2,000-Year-Old Man, which provided Brooks with a continuing source of support--emotional as well as, ultimately, financial. Brooks always had limitations as a performer, eventually learned to direct without having to terrorize everyone on the set, and even had to get educated in writing comedy when he started out barely out of his teens as the junior on one of the greatest assemblage of writers ever--the gang that created Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. 

To me, what the book leaves you with is the recognition that Brooks missed enjoying much of his colorful career because he was so focused on making money. Many of his projects did not rake in profits, which of course is a sad truth prevailing in show business. But the story is full of occasions where he stiffed people and was chintzy when he didn't have to be, including to the three children from his first marriage.

It's encouraging that in his later years Brooks acknowledged that he had sacrificed a lot of enjoyment--especially with his children by his first marriage--by focusing almost entirely on his work. It's an object lesson because in many ways,he maximized a bunch of mid-range abilities--writing, singing, directing, producing--with the amazing comic inspiration of a truly great clown. It didn't always appear but we should be grateful for the handful of absolutely hilarious occasions when it did.