It’s been nearly 12 years since the opera star Luciano Pavarotti died, and a lot longer since he was at the height of his fame, so it’s possible that a generation or two have no idea who he is or why he was such an important and beloved figure in music.
Director Ron Howard attempts to fix that with “Pavarotti,” a meandering but unmistakably fond portrait of the man who went from being perhaps the world’s greatest opera singer to being merely the most famous one.
Because Pavarotti was so big — in terms of his legend, his personality, his appetites and, sorry to say, his weight — it takes Howard a few minutes to start peeling back the layers to get to the singer’s emotional core. Ultimately, Howard finds it in recounting Pavarotti’s early days in his birthplace, Modena, Italy, the son of a baker who taught his child the basics of singing. Pavarotti’s talent took him far, first to Rome to study, and eventually touring as a young tenor with the great Joan Sutherland.
First he wowed the traditional audiences at La Scala in Milan, with roles in “La Bohème” and “La Fille du Régiment” — the latter earning him the nickname “King of the High Cs.” Then he took the world.
How Pavarotti became a star outside opera houses is another story, and Howard dives into the intrigue with gusto. His first manager, Herbert Breslin, convinced him to perform recitals in cities and towns around America. He did, onstage with only an accompanist on piano, clad in a tuxedo. Pavarotti was nervous about what to do with his hands, so Breslin told him to hold his handkerchief — which became a trademark affectation, lampooned by Adam Sandler’s Opera Man (though Howard is too nice to mention that here).
The recitals made him a household name in America, got him on Johnny Carson’s couch and in American Express ads, and led to the famous Three Tenors concert in 1990 with colleagues Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. That event sent Pavarotti’s fame skyrocketing, and soon he was hobnobbing with rock stars (Bono’s interview here is largely responsible for the movie’s PG-13 rating) and royalty; Princess Diana became a good friend, and they appeared at many benefit concerts.
Howard includes some of the criticism leveled against Pavarotti, that his fame and his many benefit concerts had taken him away from serious opera.
The movie also delves, gingerly, into Pavarotti’s marital troubles: He was married for 34 years to his wife, Adua, but had a relationship with American soprano Madelyn Renée, and later he divorced Adua to marry his assistant, Nicoletta Mantovani, 34 years his junior. (All three women appear in the film, though not together, as do his and Adua’s three daughters. His fourth daughter, Alice, born to Mantovani in 2003, appears only in archival footage as a toddler.)
What’s most compelling in “Pavarotti” isn’t the backstory, but the clips of the singer deploying that amazing voice. The encore of the Three Tenors concert, when they take turns on the fly singing lines from “Nessun Dorma,” is delightful — but when Howard ends with Pavarotti soloing on that same “Turandot” aria, his signature piece, it’s breathtaking.
Opened June 7 in select theaters; opens June 21 at Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and a war-related image. Running time: 114 minutes; in English, and in Italian with subtitles.