‘We pray God will allow him to use his voice in heaven’

It began with bread. And that is how it ended.

Shortly after 4pm, on a sun-filled autumn day, the voices of Luciano Pavarotti and his father, the baker Fernando, ”who had a voice perhaps more beautiful than mine” filled the 12th century cathedral of Modena as they sang together Cesar Franck’s hymn, Panis Angelicus (Bread of Angels).

The rich but eerie sound of the voices of two dead men swelled out of the cathedral into the piazza beyond and down the streets of the city where, according to the council, about 50 000 people had gathered to follow the funeral.

Inside and outside, it brought mourners to their feet for several minutes of applause. Pavarotti’s last standing ovation. The duet, recorded almost 20 years ago, was intended as the emotional high-point of a farewell which — in the best opera tradition — was charged with passion and theatrical flair.

”I don’t want too many people dressed in black,” Pavarotti had told the mayor of Modena, Giorgio Pighi. One of the few who respected his wishes was his second wife Nicoletta, mother of his daughter Alice, who wore an aquamarine silk jacket.

For much of the service, she was composed. But then came a prayer written by the singer’s three daughters by his first marriage, read out by the archbishop of Modena, Benito Cocchi.

”We thank God for having given Papa the gift of his great voice and we pray that He will allow him to use it to praise Him in heaven for the rest of his tomorrows.”

That was too much for Nicoletta who sobbed uncontrollably, shoulders heaving.

Such was the electricity, and such the sorrow, in the final stages of the service that one Italian television commentator, the singer, Mirella Freni, sobbed for 10 minutes on air to the watching millions.

Then came the moment at which the pall bearers lifted Pavarotti’s huge coffin and made their way unsteadily towards the exit. And for that, it had to be Nessun Dorma, the aria rising towards its crescendo as the coffin neared the door.

Just as the pall bearers prepared to step into the square, the Italian air force’s precision flying team streaked overhead with contrails in the red, white and green of the Italian tricolore. It was the funeral with everything — except the international celebrities who had been expected to descend on the singer’s home city.

U2’s Bono was there. But then, as Pavarotti’s manager, Terri Robson, told the Observer, he was looked on by the tenor ”as a son”.

Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan turned up to honour Pavarotti’s fund-raising work. Stephane Lissner, the general manager of La Scala, and Joe Volpe of the New York Met attended. But the rock and opera mega-stars shone by their absence. The ”King of the High Cs” made his last voyage as the One Tenor. The other two had been invited. Placido Domingo was in Los Angeles. Jose Carreras was preparing for a concert in Bonn.

As for the Friends, as in Pavarotti & Friends, they were nowhere to be seen. Elton John? Sting? Bryan Adam? Sheryl Crow and Liza Minnelli? None made it.

”To invite all the celebrities Pavarotti knew and worked with would have been impossible to cope with,” Robson said.

She said there were plans for two memorial services, one in Europe and one in the United States. Leaving the cathedral the day before, Italy’s President, Giorgio Napolitano, had said ”Luciano Pavarotti did honour to Italy. Italy honours Luciano Pavarotti.” And that was how it turned out. His funeral was overwhelmingly an Italian affair.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi came with his arts minister. There was a sprinkling of Italian singers, including the rocker Zucchero and Franco Zeffirelli.

Modena Cathedral is a strange building, with a bizarre assortment of carvings, some sexually explict. Above the door there is a relief of a naked woman squatting with her legs apart.

Arguably, though, it was an apt place in which to say farewell to a man of Rabelesian proclivities — and not just in his appetite for food. ”Sex always does you good,” he once said. ”It doesn’t matter if it it is before or after the show. But the best of all would be during the performance, on the only table on stage.”

In his sermon, the Archbishop of Modena, Benito Cocchi, made allowance for the divorced star’s rather personal Roman Catholicism. He said: ”The church, which takes us in at baptism like a mother does her child, accompanies on the last journey every Christian who has not explicity refused the holy sacraments.”

He added: ”A funeral service is not an exaltation of the deceased. It is not a kind of beatification. It is the prayer that the Chistian community addresses to God to ask him to welcome in his mercy he who has ended his earthly journey and presents himself to Him.”

His words were clearly intended as a response to protests from some priests. Since Wednesday night, the singer’s body dressed in a dinner jacket and holding a rosary had been lying in an open coffin in the cathedral, where tens of thousands of mourners paid their last respects.

Most were locals like Rosa Ambrosino from the Modena health authority who thought ”it would have seemed offensive not to come and say farewell.”

Bianca Bellesia, who sang with him at his operatic debut in a 1961 production of La Boheme in Reggio Emilio, said: ”I wanted to say goodbye to him with warmth; look at him for the last time.”

But the use of the cathedral drew a letter of protest from one local priest, Father Giorgio Bellei. It was, he said, ”decidedly erroneous” to give over the city’s main Christian place of worship to the twice-married opera star. ”Divorce,” he said, ”is not in line with Jesus.”

After the service, the family followed the hearse for a short distance through the streets of Modena. Then it left for the Montale Rangone cemetery near his villa outside town, where his parents and stillborn son Riccardo are buried. There, his body was to be placed in a burial niche at a private family service.

Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma was to be played at the Italy and England Europe 2008 football internationals on Saturday night.

As for ”Big Luciano” himself, well, Fr Giorgio had his doubts as to whether the great tenor would be in heaven last night. ”All that counts is dying in God’s grace”, he said. ”Otherwise good works and Masses [said for the dead] count for little.”

Most of Pavarotti’s compatriots would almost certainly take the more compassionate view of Dante, who arranged for even the pagan geniuses of the arts to be plucked from the fiery abyss. Zucchero was sure where the singer would be.

”What is more,” he said, ”I hope St Peter meets you with a wedge of Parmesan and a bottle of Lambrusco — well-chilled, just the way you like it.” – Guardian Unlimited Â

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