Opera Meets Film: Pavarotti (Review)

Ron Howard’s Exploration Of The Legendary Career Hits All The Right Emotional Beats

By David Salazar

Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features Ron Howard’s upcoming “Pavarotti.” Please note that while maintaining the usual analytical approach we sustain with this section, this article will veer toward being a review of the film as well, similar to our treatment of “Maria by Callas.” 

Pavarotti is undeniably one of the most famed opera singers of all-time and is arguably the most successful if financials are considered. But his fame and impact didn’t just come from his greatest as an artist onstage, but how he managed to connect with people who would never have interacted with the art form otherwise.

The new documentary “Pavarotti,” as directed by Oscar-winner Ron Howard aims to showcase how the opera singer made it his mission to connect with others through his art. Howard does much the same with his documentary, emphasizing a rather straightforward narrative path in his film. In a larger sense, this is a very linear “cradle to grave” narrative, though he does occasionally shift around to provide greater context and nuance.

He makes no assumptions about his audience’s operatic knowledge and dedicates portions of the film to unpacking and demystifying opera for those who might hold preconceived notions. When the film turns its attention toward opera, Howard has no qualms about looking backwards at other major artists to help contextualize Pavarotti’s own progression. But he does more than just provide a history lesson in the broadest sense. We get a sense of what the tenor voice is with a number of opera’s greatest stars chiming in on the technical aspects, but also on what made Pavarotti so special in this regard (soprano Angela Gheorghiu gets one of the best lines in this particular sequence). At another point, Plácido Domingo delves into a conversation that personifies the voice to explore the challenges of the career.

The documentary also spends a great deal of Pavarotti’s personal relationships, including some of the more scandalous moments in his life.

And then there are his career achievements, which are perhaps the most interesting aspects of the story as presented by Howard. Those familiar with Pavarotti for his most popular exploits are likely to feel at home here as the story emphasizes how the tenor managed to get U2 to write him a song and the genesis of The Three Tenors.

Yet his bigger moments as an opera superstar actually play a diminished role in some respects. Howard opens the documentary with a fascinating clip of the tenor in Manaus performing for himself in an empty opera house. We learn about his early formative years and then eventually jump to his massive breakout success, with a clip from “La Bohème” set against some black and white images. This particular sequence is one that audiences will undeniably relish.

His ascension to becoming opera’s most heralded star comes quickly in the narrative before Howard really jumps into the last few decades of his life. The challenges he had to overcome to get there are rarely glimpsed, which is rather surprising considering how much of the film’s second half is filled with some of the tenor’s most challenging moments.

In all, the documentary is an intense experience with Howard managing to find the right musical selections to coordinate with the exact emotional beats. For example, late in the film, we get an extended clip of the tenor singing a riveting “E lucevan le stele” only to be told moments later that he was battling cancer. It’s the perfect setup to the painful narrative beat that will ensue.

And of course, he hits the right beat at the close of the film with the famous clip of the tenor singing “Nessun Dorma” at the 1990 World Cup.

The documentary does reveal a lot of new footage and those who know Pavarotti inside and out will get a chance to simply enjoy revisiting his life, with some new glimpses. Those who don’t will get a chance to dig deeper into the life of one of the most iconic artists of the last century.


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