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Pavarotti's first solo album in 15 years is a labor of love

Luciano Pavarotti has announced that he will retire on his 70th birthday, Oct. 12, 2005.

Although that milestone is less than two years away, the popular Italian tenor, who has sold more records than any other classical artist in history, doesn't seem to be slowing down much. In the last month he has sung concerts in America, England, and Mexico; he's also been on "Good Morning, America" and the "Tonight Show."

There has also been a much-publicized cancellation, a concert in Panama last week. His press representative says he caught a cold from his 9-month-old daughter, Alice ("A-lee-chay").

One reason for all this activity is that music lovers all over the world want to hear him one last time. Another is Pavarotti's wish to promote a project close to his heart: "Ti Adoro," his first solo album in 15 years, and his first pop album ever.

Pavarotti has sung popular music for years -- in the famous Three Tenors concerts that began in 1990 and in the annual "Pavarotti and Friends" benefit concerts, where he has appeared alongside Sting, Celine Dion, Ricky Martin, and the Spice Girls.

Not all of Pavarotti's recent TV appearances have found him in his best current voice, but he sounds amazingly steady and solid on the new album -- it is hard to think of any previous tenor who could sound this good at Pavarotti's age. Most of the songs are appealing, and Pavarotti lavishes his incomparable diction and emotional generosity on them, and his high C is still in working order.

On the telephone from his home in Modena, Italy, even the tenor's speaking voice seemed flooded with sunshine.

"Everybody has been trying to talk me into singing new popular songs; I've always sung older ones, but these were written for me. Only one song on the new album, `Caruso,' was not. I recorded it several years ago [in 1989] because my daughter Giuliana forced me to do it. She came to New York with a recording: `You must sing this.' I said, `I don't sing new popular songs.' But she explained it was about the last hour in the life of [the greatest Italian tenor, Enrico] Caruso. I listened to it, liked it, and recorded it right away."

The song lies very high in the voice; it has almost as many high C's in it as the aria from Donizetti's "The Daughter of the Regiment" that made Pavarotti a star. He sings it in a very beautiful but strange voice, a timbre we haven't heard from him before. "I think the song is written to sound that way," Pavarotti explains. "Caruso died of throat cancer, and he's choking; his voice is full of tears, but he is still singing."

On the new album, "Caruso" uses Pavarotti's original vocals, but with a new arrangement surrounding them, including an exciting contribution by rock guitarist Jeff Beck that redefines the mood and energy of the song. Everything else is new, recorded between 2001 and last summer -- mostly in a studio in his seaside home in Pesaro, Italy.

"Ti Adoro" is a family affair. The booklet lists Pavarotti's companion of nine years, Nicoletta Mantovani (the mother of Alice), as "production and A & R consultant."

Enlisting Mantovani's support was crucial to getting the album made, according to Decca president Costa Pilavacchi. "Over a period of four years, we must have had 40 meetings with them about the project," Pilavacchi recalls, "all of them incredibly pleasant. She became an ardent advocate for the project, and he came to believe in it too -- if he didn't believe in it, it wouldn't work at all. At this point in his life, he doesn't need to do anything; this was literally a labor of love."

Dozens of songs were written and submitted to the tenor, and he rejected most of them. Pilavacchi says, "He knows what is right for him. But he changed his mind occasionally. A song was written for the soundtrack of `The Gladiator,' but he didn't want to do it then because he thought the movie was too violent. But he loved the music; it was written as a contemporary counterpart to his signature aria, `Nessun dorma,' from `Turandot.' "

It was comparatively easy to find romantic ballads of love and nostalgia. But that's not all Pavarotti wanted.

He has had many difficult experiences in recent years: ugly publicity surrounding his divorce and tax problems; physical ailments affecting his mobility; cancellations and uneven performances. He has also faced tragedy, including the death of his parents and a child -- Alice's twin brother was stillborn.

But Pavarotti can still say, "I am a happy man and happy with my life. It was important to me to have some happy songs for this album. I was one year waiting for two songs."

The two upbeat songs -- the title track, "Ti Adoro" ("I'm Crazy About You") and "Buongiorno a Te" ("Good Morning to You") -- have proved everyone's favorites so far. "Ti Adoro," addressed to Alice, is a boogie-woogie cross between "Volare" and "Funiculi, funicula," with a larky quote from "The Barber of Seville" as well. "Buongiorno a Te" is an irresistible waltz.

Pavarotti is so happy with the record he wants to make another. Meanwhile the tenor is preparing for his farewell to the Metropolitan Opera, and probably to the operatic stage, with three performances of "Tosca" in March. After that he will launch a farewell concert tour that will take him around the world, and he hopes very much it will bring him to Boston one last time. "I still enjoy singing very, very much. My father sang until he was 90 -- he had a fantastic voice, in fact much better than mine. And when I say goodbye, I will begin to teach young talents, which I will do for nothing. I plan to teach in my homes in Modena and Pesaro in Italy and in New York."

And, of course, he will devote himself to family life; he feels he missed too much of the childhood of his three grown-up daughters. There's also a wedding to Mantovani coming up. Then there is his new daughter. "Alice is sensational. And this morning she began to vocalize -- she screamed all the morning. She is not yet crawling; she tried to do, but instead of going forward in one direction, she goes back. She is so beautiful, so charming."

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