Pavarotti : Christmas at Notre-Dame
They spoke about it
Pavarotti’s Montréal Christmas
Prelude to a global media phenomenon
He was born with a unique voice—a brilliant, pure timbre of incomparable richness. And he learned very young how to use it. “Of course I love Verdi and Puccini,” Pavarotti once said, “but my voice loves Donizetti. Bel canto is the best medicine for the voice because it requires discipline and qualities such as agility, flexibility, a perfectly concentrated sound that flows sweetly and smoothly, a homogenous colour, and the ability to sing long, expressive legati without using portamento, and, above all, without ever exaggerating or sounding forced. All singers should possess such qualities.”
Born in 1935 in Modena, Luciano Pavarotti trained at this school of bel canto with well-known masters such as Arrigo Pola and Ettore Campogalliani. From the start of his career, however, he also mastered the great verismo roles for spinto tenor, but without resorting to the use of portamenti and melodramatic effects. In 1961, at the age of 26, he made his Italian début in the role of Rodolfo, the romantic young poet in Puccini’s La Bohème. Before the decade was out, he had conquered the world’s greatest stages, often with this very role, whose definitive performance he gave in 1972 in a legendary recording with the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan. In another memorable recording that same year, he sang the role of Calaf in Turandot, which also featured Joan Sutherland and Monserrat Caballé with the London Philharmonic under Zubin Metha.
Pavarotti’s meteoric international rise to fame began in 1963, when he stepped in at the last minute for the great Guiseppi di Stefano at the London’s Covent Garden. There, he met Joan Sutherland and her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge. Thus began a fruitful collaboration with the diva in which young Pavarotti reacquainted opera-goers with a number of the great bel canto tenor roles—long distorted by generations of heavy verismo tenors—such as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Elvino in La sonnambula and, especially, Tonio in La Fille du regiment. Pavarotti’s electrifying performance of this latter role at the Covent Garden in 1966 (with its famous aria “Ah, mes amis, quel jour de fête” containing no fewer than nine high Cs) was followed soon thereafter by a recording of the opera. This would be the start of a longstanding association with the Decca label, which introduced Pavarotti to the world as “King of the High Cs.”
In the 1970s and 80s, with his voice in full bloom, Pavarotti took on more tragic roles, revealing an innate capacity to convey emotion with both his voice and highly expressive face; these skills also allowed listeners to overlook acting abilities that were hindered by his expansive corpulence. One of the high points of this rich period was certainly the 1982 recording of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera under the direction of Georg Solti and featuring Margaret Price, Renato Bruson, Christa Ludwig and Kathleen Battle.
1990 marked an important change in media for Pavarotti. To celebrate the miraculous recovery from leukemia of his friend and colleague José Carreras, and to raise funds for the leukemia research centre founded by Carreras, Pavarotti joined with Carreras and Placido Domingo to perform in an open-air concert in Rome before tens of thousands of people at the opening of the FIFA World Cup. Broadcast around the globe on television, the concert was a worldwide bestseller on video, and later on DVD, and launched the phenomenon of the “three tenors,” who performed together several more times over the course of the decade.
But more so than the other two, Pavarotti took a liking to “world media event” concerts in large venues such as London’s Hyde Park, which could accommodate crowds surpassing one-hundred-thousand people. In Italy, he founded Pavarotti & Friends, an annual fundraising concert for victims of conflict throughout the world. The first in this series was prompted in 1993 by the Bosnian conflict; ten years later, the funds raised went to Iraq. In these mega-spectacles, Pavarotti the classical musician often collaborated with stars from the world of pop music, alienating many purists. It must nevertheless be recognized that the Pavarotti phenomenon greatly contributed to the popularity of opera around the world.
But it was in Montréal in 1978—long before the “three tenors” or Pavarotti & Friends—that the man with the golden voice performed one of his first grand televised concerts to be broadcast internationally. The man originally behind this event was Jean-Yves Hardy, then in charge of public development for the brand new National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Hardy’s initial goal was to bring Pavarotti to Ottawa in 1975 at the request of a friend who had recently been appointed president of the Ontario Federation of Credit Unions and who wanted something out of the ordinary to close the association’s annual general meeting. But Pavarotti’s agent stipulated that he also perform in Montréal, so Hardy found himself planning not one but two concerts. The success of these performances was the start of a great friendship between the Italian tenor and the budding Québec producer. Pavarotti returned to sing in Montréal in 1976 and 1977, and on several occasions invited Hardy to hear him perform at the Metropolitan Opera and to his luxury apartment in New York.
But on the way to the airport after the 1977 recital, Pavarotti told his friend that he could not see himself returning for a fourth consecutive year to give yet another recital with piano accompaniment. So Hardy suggested that the singer perform the Christmas album he had recorded the previous year, but in a concert with choir and orchestra that would be recorded on video. Although the video market was then only in its infancy, Pavarotti accepted immediately; in less than a year, Hardy secured a co-production between a limited partnership he founded especially for the concert and Société Radio-Canada. He himself took care of bringing together in Notre-Dame Basilica the head organist Pierre Grandmaison, the choir of the Disciples de Massenet, the Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal, and some of Montréal’s finest orchestral musicians under the baton of maestro Franz-Paul Decker.
Producer Jean-Yves Landry pulled out all the stops to turn the concert into an exceptional audio-visual document. For the first time, an arts broadcast used special lenses that had been previously reserved for sporting events such as the Montréal Olympics, for which Radio-Canada had been the official broadcaster two years earlier. Recorded on September 21, 1978, the concert was initially broadcast on Radio-Canada for Christmas 1979, in the U.S. on PBS in 1982, and later around the world, before being marketed as a video.
Recently, however, Hardy digitally enhanced the video for transfer onto DVD. And although stereo television did not exist at the time of the recording, one of the sound technicians had the brilliant idea of creating a stereo recording along with the mono track. This previously unused stereo audio track, which Hardy subsequently enhanced to Dolby 5.1, is featured on this new improved DVD edition of the concert, which Analeka is extremely proud to release.