"Nessun Dorma", 1980
He was a man and a singer before the halo of celebrity descended, of course. The private man, who has gone, perhaps only his family knew. But the performer was the event of our lifetimes, as great an Italian singer as has ever lived. Some sniffed (and still do) that he was no "musician", for he couldn't learn parts from a score. But in actual time -- when it matters -- he was superb, with an Italianate command of phrase and rhythm (not to mention diction, tone, and pitch, which were unsurpassed) which rivals (including The Other Guy) could and cannot, for all gifts and study, match. Similarly, it is said he was no actor. Sometimes, perhaps. (But really?) But even apart from his often gripping musical characterizations (listen to any early Edgardo, for example -- the SFO one with Sills is mind-blowing), he was perhaps the most dramatically aware singer of our age: attuned like no one else to the dynamic of performer and audience, the high-wire energy that fueled their love and his glory. When not distracted by later infirmity, he -- with his character -- was as vividly present in the moment as any, and -- within a repertory approximately coterminous with personal sympathy -- more natural than most.
Act I Lucia duet with Sutherland, 1972
But it is the sound that is incomparable, the clear, unmistakable, lyric tenor sound glorious through the passaggio and top. Even the echoes of its former greatness made some late 90s performances worthwhile, and a blind guy has built a huge career on a certain similarity of basic timbre. There is nothing words can add except that those interested in history may have been underrating Pavarotti for a long time out of respect for the past. Now he too is part of history, and may shine brighter than ever.