BAZ BAMIGBOYE: The power of Pavarotti unleashed

BAZ BAMIGBOYE: The power of Pavarotti unleashed

A new show has been created to celebrate the voice of opera legend Luciano Pavarotti.

His widow Nicoletta Mantovani, and daughter Alice — who was just four when her father died 14 years ago — have joined forces with Michael Gracey, who directed The Greatest Showman, and wunderkind composer Jacob Collier to pay tribute to ‘one of the greatest voices of all time’.

The production, as yet untitled, has cost millions to develop, and is set to open in the West End in the autumn of 2023.

‘Luciano was a precursor in embracing new modes and genres . . . he wanted to bring his music to everyone,’ Nicoletta commented, while also indirectly referring to how Collier, a 27-year-old, four-time Grammy winner from North London, will approach the show: using technical wizardry to make it sound like Pavarotti is singing right there on stage.

His widow Nicoletta Mantovani, and daughter Alice — who was just four when her father died 14 years ago — have joined forces with Michael Gracey, who directed The Greatest Showman, and wunderkind composer Jacob Collier to pay tribute to ‘one of the greatest voices of all time’.

Working with sound tech genius Ben Bloomberg at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Collier came up with a new software programme designed to isolate Pavarotti’s voice from recordings of his performances, leaving just the world’s most famous tenor singing a variety of arias, with no instrumental backing.

‘By bringing his singing to life in a new way, this show will capture that spirit of emotion that defined everything Luciano did,’ Nicoletta said.

She and her daughter introduced a private workshop in Shoreditch at which the revolutionary artistry was unveiled.

On Wednesday, Alice — who said her father’s voice ‘was touched by God’ — explained that the show will feature a character called Sofia, ‘a kind of fictionalised version of me’, who will bring her father to life through correspondence he received from ordinary people who were passionate fans. Each letter will inspire an aria or a song associated with him.

Collier, who has nearly five million Twitter and YouTube followers, won his awards for arrangements of his own compositions, as well as other pieces such as the theme music from the Flintstones. ‘How do you honour the greatest voice arguably ever to grace the face of the planet?’ he asked. ‘And do it in a way that you’ve never heard before?’

Fond memories: Alice with her mother Nicoletta

His answer was to ‘axe the orchestra’. ‘Let’s replace that familiar sound with the sound of many voices accompanying the big man’s voice, live on stage,’ Collier told me. He explained that singers would use their voices to create a new kind of backing: representing brass, woodwind and strings. Just a handful of actual instruments, including the harp, will be included.

OK, I confess I was a little dumbfounded, too; until I saw how the process was put together at the workshop. Pavarotti’s singing was conjured up using a super-duper digital keyboard, with live singers adding harmonies, where once a full orchestra had been.

‘We’re making music in the room, in real time, with the great man!’ enthused Collier.

He described Pavarotti’s voice as ‘the perfect instrument’, with the emotional power to pull audiences to the edge of their seats.

Producers John Berry and Anthony Lilley, of the Scenario Two production company, were granted stage rights from the Pavarotti estate, plus permission to use fan mail sent to the tenor.

They teamed up with Universal Music, who will release a recording of the music from the show ahead of its opening.

Many of Pavarotti’s most famous arias will be included. Would Nessun Dorma figure, I wondered? ‘It would be odd if it didn’t,’ Berry joked.

It’s a perilous situation for the West End at the moment, with many shows cancelling performances due to Covid scares among cast and backstage members. Little discussed is the number of thespians who are unvaccinated, some simply refusing to be jabbed. 

I was surprised so many actors would selfishly affect the health and livelihood of their cast mates. Unlike Broadway, producers here cannot mandate that all cast and crew must be vaccinated. Producers are re-mortgaging their homes to ensure shows continue to run, and give people jobs. But I’m told one has to respect anti-vaxxers. I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I can’t.

Cumberbabies come first, says proud dad Benedict  

Even with three major movies on the boil, family still comes first for Benedict Cumberbatch. 

The actor, who’s dominating our big screens at the moment with roles in The Power Of The Dog, Spider-Man: No Way Home and the upcoming The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain, insists, when filming on location, that his wife Sophie Hunter and their three young sons come, too.

While he was promoting Avengers: Endgame in Los Angeles, the Oscar-winning director Jane Campion came a-calling to discuss a project — The Power Of The Dog — and was charmed by the sight of the Cumberbatches en famille at their rented home.

‘Just watching him be a family man told me who he was in an instant,’ Campion recalled later, as we chatted during a reception thrown by Netflix at the Venice Film Festival.

There was no audition, no screen test. All Campion wanted was ‘to meet my Phil’. That’s Phil Burbank: the deeply complex cattle rancher in her powerful adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 dark novel, set in 1920s Montana.

Director Will Sharpe’s exquisite The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain, will open here on New Year’s Day, with Cumberbatch movingly portraying the artist who won a following for his whimsical pictures of anthropomorphic cats

Campion chose to shoot the film on location in her native New Zealand, with the grassy plains and craggy mountains of the South Island filling in for the sweeping vistas of the U.S. state.

But thanks to lockdown, Cumberbatch wound up being stuck in the southern hemisphere for eight months. ‘I wouldn’t have done the job without being able to take them [Sophie and the boys] in the first place,’ he told me. ‘Too far; too long away.’

Similarly, while he’s full of admiration for his friend Jessie Buckley (who was his wife in thriller The Courier), currently playing the role of Sally Bowles, opposite Eddie Redmayne, in Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club (that’s the Playhouse Theatre in London to you and me), he won’t be returning to the stage any time soon. Even though he admits he’s ‘aching’ to get back to the boards.

‘I have three small children [aged six and under]. It’s too much right now,’ he said. ‘I’ll wait until they’re a little older.’

Cumberbatch is preparing to face the cameras again in January, working with another ‘great director’ (though he refused to divulge further details).

In the meantime, The Power Of The Dog, hailed as one of the year’s best films, is storming through awards season — collecting a string of precursor honours for the Netflix picture, for Campion, for co-stars Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons and Cumberbatch himself.

He’s on track for a second Best Actor Oscar nomination to add to the one he received six years ago for his portrayal of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.

Director Will Sharpe’s exquisite The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain, will open here on New Year’s Day, with Cumberbatch movingly portraying the artist who won a following for his whimsical pictures of anthropomorphic cats.

Wednesday saw the launch of Spider-Man: No Way Home, in which his character, Doctor Strange, plays around with time, to try to help Spider-man disentangle himself from a web of trouble. There are further Marvel Universe adventures coming in May, with the release of Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness.

Cumberbatch even has his own production company, SunnyMarch, which has developed a number of his films — Louis Wain, The Courier, The Mauritanian — and enabled him to combine work and family duties. But that doesn’t mean he’s cutting corners. To play Phil, in The Power Of The Dog, he took himself off to ‘City Slickers’ school in Montana, where he lived on a ranch to get into ‘that circadian rhythm’ of rising with the sun and sleeping with the sunset; and acquired skills ranging from herding cattle to playing the banjo.

‘It’s probably the furthest stretch I’ve ever had, from what I was born into and experienced as a kid growing up,’ he said of the role.

To get further into Phil’s head, he and Campion hired Kim Gillingham, a Jungian analyst, to do ‘subconscious work’ with them at her studio in Hampstead.

Cumberbatch kept a dream journal. ‘I talked to her about what I could remember — if I could remember — of my dreams; and it was remarkable. The questions are sort of private, obviously; but they relate to Phil and aspects of him that are like me, or aren’t like me. It really helped me focus on who he was.

‘He’s a deeply troubled soul who’s looking to the past, continually, and being left behind by the present and the future.’

Filming felt like it went on for ever; but there were rewards, too. Cumberbatch would ride out on Cricket, his horse, accompanied by dogs, to round up the cattle; and marvel at ‘the harmony of the different species . . . man, horse, dog, cattle, doing their thing’.

Louis Wain was a world away, literally and metaphorically, from Phil Burbank. Cumberbatch had been aware of Wain’s work; but until he started on The Electrical Life . . . he knew nothing of the artist and illustrator’s ‘quietly heroic’ existence in Victorian and Edwardian London, where he struggled to support his mother and sisters. ‘He was overworked, and thinly stretched,’ he said. ‘He had sisters scrambling for money. He was mentally fragile. Yet he managed to produce so much work.’

The beauty of Will Sharpe’s film is that Wain, and his eccentricities, are presented so matter of factly. The moments that moved me most are those with his wife, Emily Richardson, played by Claire Foy. ‘It’s a lifelong love affair,’ Cumberbatch said, of their screen marriage.

It’s actually the second time he’s been hitched to Foy. They played husband and wife in the film Wreckers a decade ago.

That was before both shot to mega-stardom: she through portraying the Queen in The Crown; he thanks to Sherlock and a series of increasingly major movies.

‘We’ve both watched each other and gone: ‘Yeah!’,’ he said.

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