The style of opera known as ‘bel canto’ is sometimes jokingly referred to as ‘can belto’, in a sly dig at singers who simply stand at the front of the stage and shamelessly belt out their arias without thought. But at their best, bel canto operas – which favour the singers with long arching melodies and show-piece passages of fast ornamentation – are as full of drama and excitement as anything else in the repertoire. The most important composer of this genre was Donizetti, and Pavarotti’s light and supple voice suited Donizetti’s music supremely well, as you can hear if you scroll down to read our guide to their essential operas.
La Fille Du Regiment (The Daughter Of The Regiment)
The role of Tonio famously contains an aria (‘Ah! Mes Amis’ – ‘Ah! My Friends’) that demands eight top Cs – yes, eight – and it’s usually completed by an extra ninth one that singers plop in for good measure. When a tenor with good comic gifts can really nail those notes (they’re not called ‘money notes’ for nothing), he’s pretty much guaranteed to have opera house managers battering his door down to book him. When a young Pavarotti appeared at the Royal Opera as Tonio in 1966, starring opposite his friend Joan Sutherland, the audience went absolutely wild for the life-affirming joy that the tenor brought to this role, and – of course – for those nine top Cs. The cast later trooped over to the recording studio, and thus we can still hear what it was that sent those audiences into such a tizz in La Fille Du Regiment, one of the best Pavarotti and Donizetti operas. In this area the sweet-natured young Tonio reveals that he has enlisted into the French army so as to be near Marie, the mess-girl of the regiment, whom he loves. Not only can you admire the truly amazing top notes, but you can also enjoy one of the very few times that Pavarotti sang in French.
L’Elisir D’Amore (The Elixir Of Love)
Donizetti was a master of both tragic and comic operas – and sometimes, he even managed to combine both modes in one work. In the heartbreaking aria ‘Una Furtive Lagrima’ (‘A Furtive Tear’) from L’Elisir D’Amore, the innocent young rustic Nemorino has just seen a tear escape from the eye of the wealthy and sophisticated woman he adores; and he believes it means that she loves him. Although the opera is a comedy, and a jolly good one at that, this particular aria is full of bittersweet complexity and sadness, and Pavarotti nails the longing and the tenderness beautifully. But don’t worry: it all ends happily for Nemorino. Adina realizes at that point that she does love him, and she buys back his commission from the army so that he won’t have to leave her. They live, just as they should, happily ever after.
Lucia Di Lammermoor
Lucia Di Lammermoor, one of the best Pavarotti and Donizetti operas, is based on the historical novel The Bride Of Lammermoor by Walter Scott. The grim plot, which tells of a young woman driven insane by the machinations of her tyrannical brother, offers Donizetti the chance to put his foot down on the tragic throttle. The opera is usually regarded as a showpiece for the soprano, but Donizetti gives terrific music to her distraught lover Enrico – played, naturally, by the tenor – as well. During the dramatic final scene, beginning ‘Tombe Degli Avi Miei’ (‘Tombs Of My Forefathers’) and containing the aria ‘Fra Poco A Me Ricovero’ (‘Soon The Tomb Will Claim Me’), Enrico learns that his beloved Lucia has died. In horror, he begs fate to let them be reunited in heaven, and then kills himself. Just listen to the despair, the passion, and the exquisite phrasing in Pavarotti’s version from 1971, when he was at the absolute height of his game.
La Favorita (The Favorite)
Pavarotti rarely took a chance on lesser-known works, preferring instead to develop his insight and understanding of the tried-and-tested operatic masterpieces. But he made an exception for Donizetti’s La Favorita, which (despite a slightly patchy plot) contains an absolute peach of a role for the tenor, and which he personally helped popularize from the 1970s onwards. In the wonderful aria ‘Spirto Gentil’ from the final act of the opera, Ferdinand is in despair, having just learned that the love of his life – the beautiful Leonora – is not the pure angel he believed, but the former ‘favorite’ (i.e. mistress) of the king. Just listen to his exhilarating high note at the climax of the aria, and marvel at his extraordinary breath control. As the music magazine Gramophone commented, “His singing is phenomenal, wherever you care to test it.” Hear, hear.