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MOVIE REVIEW : Pavarotti's 'Harmony' Brings China Closer

February 12, 1988|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

"Distant Harmony: Pavarotti in China" (selected theaters) is a joyous celebration of the cultural exchange that occurred when Luciano Pavarotti toured China in June, 1986. In the company of Pavarotti and the Genoa Opera, with whom he performed "La Boheme," we experience a reaffirmation of the universality of art through the glories of Italian opera.

The beauty of Pavarotti's soaring voice is enough to bring tears to your eyes, and when this happens you realize again how precious art is in its capacity to touch the hearts of people everywhere and bring them together in a shared experience.

In the skilled hands of director DeWitt Sage and distinguished cameraman Miroslav Ondricek, "Distant Harmony" is far more than another China travelogue or a routine record of a good-will tour with all its usual ceremonies and formalities.

Ondricek's delicate sense of composition brings freshness to the familiar views of teeming Chinese street life, and Sage, an award-winning documentary maker, imaginatively juxtaposes scenes from Chinese opera with the production of "La Boheme" and accompanies travelogue-type footage with Pavarotti's singing on the sound track. The film contrasts Italian and Chinese arts and culture, defining them as well as combining them for an entirely new experience.

For all these enriching strategies, it is Pavarotti who makes it all work. His serene immensity, natural gregariousness and great talent all combine to make him a warm, larger-than-life presence and a perfect ambassador of culture and good will. He's a secure, consummate pro and a colossal good sport who even joins Beijing's brigade of bicyclists--and Pavarotti on a bicycle is a sight to behold. He holds master classes and dons elaborate makeup and costume to perform in a scene from a Chinese opera.

Sage shrewdly sets off all this with some human asides. A member of Pavarotti's entourage tells of the difficult task of providing Pavarotti with food to his liking. Pavarotti's sound man gets tough with the Chinese, insisting that Pavarotti will not sing in the Great Hall of the People without his own sound system no matter how extraordinary the honor.

It is this concert, in which Pavarotti became the first opera singer to perform in the 10,000-seat Great Hall, that climaxes "Distant Harmony" (Times-rated Family). Pavarotti sings all the standards--"Vesti La Giubba," for example, and even "O Sole Mio," leaving us feeling as rapt and moved as the Chinese, and as the concert ends simultaneously with the film, you want to clap and cheer as the lights go up.

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