In June 1986, Luciano Pavarotti went on his first visit to China with the cast of the Genoa Opera's "La Bohe`me" and several misconceptions. He thought that Chinese audiences would be cool and undemonstrative, that few Chinese would understand or appreciate what was happening in an Italian opera.
"I thought to myself that I should be ready to accept any kind of reaction from the worst to the best," he recalls in "Distant Harmony," the film that documents his tour.
What happened, as shown in the film, which opens today at the Circle West End, was something like pandemonium. Audiences were "almost wild," as Pavarotti says. "It was a big, big, huge surprise, because they were so excited and so warm."
Some Chinese audiences proved to be remarkably expert in the exotic disciplines of occidental music -- for example, recognizing "Torna a Surriento" from the opening notes of the introduction and breaking into spontaneous applause before the singing began, just as an Italian audience might.
But even more remarkable were the singers to whom Pavarotti gave master classes. These include a soprano whose tone is at least as good as the Musetta in the visiting "Bohe`me," though she can use some stylistic coaching. Pavarotti gallantly supplies that, and for opera enthusiasts one of the film's unique experiences is the spectacle of this tenor singing that cornerstone of the soprano repertoire, "Musetta's Waltz."
Extensive segments from the first three acts of "Bohe`me" are scattered through the film, sometimes with audience reactions and sometimes with cuts to bits of the Beijing Opera, effectively contrasting the two cultures that met on this tour. The camera gives a lot of attention to young Chinese performers -- musicians in both Chinese and European styles, but also dancers, acrobats and adepts in the martial arts. Their level of achievement is often phenomenal, and even for those who can take Pavarotti or leave him, the film might be worth watching for its candid glimpses of the Chinese people -- not only concert and opera audiences but also people doing tai chi exercises in the parks, crowds in the streets, children at school and swarms of bicycle riders who give Beijing a rush hour atmosphere without an automobile in sight.
Still, Pavarotti is the center of attention, and he performs beautifully for the camera, fooling around on a bicycle, putting on the makeup of the Beijing Opera (which makes him totally unrecognizable) and even singing a few measures in a highly stylized scene with Chinese stars of that genre. He is seen relaxing, teaching, registering amazement at the accomplishments of Chinese schoolchildren, as well as performing. The warmth of his personality comes through effectively -- more so than in his earlier movie, "Yes, Giorgio," where he had to fit in with a silly plot rather than just be himself.
Opera connoisseurs will want to know that he repeats three numbers he sang in "Yes, Giorgio": "La donn' e mobile," "O sole mio" and "Nessun dorma." Pieces not sung in the previous movie include segments from the first three acts of "La Bohe`me" (most notably "Che gelida manina" and "Musetta's Waltz"), "Vesti la giubba" from "Pagliacci," "E la solita storia del pastore" from "L'Arlesiana" and "Quest' o quella" from "Rigoletto."
Distant Harmony: Pavarotti in China is mostly in English, with substantial segments in Italian and Chinese without subtitles. It is unrated but suitable for family viewing.