Salon: Sharps and Flats

Published December 2, 1996 7:00PM (EST)

In every good crossover musician there are two voices, able to be summoned individually like orderly genies sharing a bottle. In the case of most musicians, however, there is only one genie, who may grant wishes in one style, but deliver only hexes in another. Such is the case with "Luciano Pavarotti and Friends for War Child," a live recording of this past summer's Modena concert benefitting young survivors of the Bosnian war.

The first track features Mr. Pavarotti and Eric Clapton in a duet performance of "Holy Mother." Halfway through, Mr. Clapton passes off the tune to Mr. Pavarotti, who proceeds to crush his pop colleague like a careless elephant attempting to dance with a mouse. The comparison is not meant to flatter the elephant or disparage the mouse; on the contrary, the smaller animal seems to be doing very well before the colossus lumbers in and flattens him. The entrance of Mr. Pavarotti in full operatic voice is nothing short of surreal; in that respect, it is an electrifying moment. The audience cheers Mr. Pavarotti as they would a gladiator slaying his opponent in the Colosseum.

A fairer match pits Mr. Pavarotti against Liza Minnelli in a performance of "New York, New York." Ms. Minnelli will not be stepped on nor slain. With their wide vibratos, their extravagant (if not shameless) use of rubato and their sheer will to be loud, Mr. Pavarotti and Ms. Minnelli demonstrate the affinities between Italian operatic and American Broadway belting. In a gesture which must have been a calculated homage to Maria Callas at her most temperamental, Ms. Minnelli holds the final note significantly longer than does the tenor. The duet can only be decided in Ms. Minnelli's favor, bringing the Modena recital thus far to a tie.

Notwithstanding a ghoulish intervening number featuring Pavarotti and The Kelly Family performing "Ave Maria," the tie is broken by the outrageous spectacle of Pavarotti and Sheryl Crow collaborating in a performance of Mozart's duet, "La ci darem la mano," from "Don Giovanni." The question is not whether Ms. Crow can adequately meet the demands of this music -- she cannot -- but rather what possibly could have motivated her to try. The answer - and what makes this performance one of the most ballsy, if not heroic, on record - is that this is a premeditated failure, a planned artistic near-death experience. Ms. Crow has done the musical equivalent of throwing herself from the clock tower of Modena's Gran Piazza and then crawling away on her own hands and knees. What choice does the audience have but to cheer lustily and long? And they do.

The CD features several other spirited
performances by American and European
artists including Joan Osborne, Elton John,
Zucchero, Luciano Ligabue, Jon Secada,
Litfiba, Edoardo Bennato and the East
London Gospel Choir. But it is the
disastrous encounters between Mr.
Pavarotti and his pop collaborators that
make this disk worth owning. At the
twilight of a century serenaded by the
melodies of Arnold Schoenberg and Yoko
Ono, our ears have built up a considerable
resistance to shock. On that score,
Pavarotti and Friends are irresistible.

By Paul Festa

Paul Festa is the author of and a frequent Salon contributor.

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