Pavarotti was (is, thanks to the recorded legacy) my favorite tenor, and I've been trying to remember how and why that came about. I only saw him live once, in a Chicago Symphony concert performance of Otello of which all I remember is he was rather under the weather—by the time I started going to the opera, Ardis Krainik had issued her famous ukase in Chicago, so I missed out on any stage performances. (My parents did get to see his Duca di Montova on one of the occasions he didn't cancel.) In my undergrad days, I was a big Jon Vickers fan, as his style was a better fit for undergrad intellectual iconoclasm. But at some point in the past ten years, Pavarotti took the crown. I think it was because he had some God-given immunity to my opera-fan nitpicking—even a mediocre performance still had that glorious sound and that generous presence, which, for some reason, made me just not care so much about the other stuff, and reminded me just what it is about opera that I love, anyway.
The clip above, from 1988, has it all—the full-out sound, the dictation-worthy diction (see, guys? When I talk about fast, crisp consonants and pure vowels, that's what I'm talking about), the rhythmic swagger. Opera Chic has more great clips, and La Cieca posts a marvelous 1969 Nemorino that gives you a sense of what had everybody buzzing when he first appeared. (And I can't resist linking to his final performance, opening the 2006 Torino Olympics with—what else?—"Nessun dorma." Still damn impressive for a septugenarian, and I just love that the crowd knows to fill in the chorus part.)
Just the other night, my lovely wife and I were talking about Pavarotti (the Rigoletto with Sutherland was on the stereo) and we were saying that a voice like that only comes along every fifty years, and trying to figure out who would have been the Pavarotti of the previous generation, and who was around today who might step into that role. But really, has there ever been another voice like Pavarotti's? I wonder.