50,000 watch final curtain call for Pavarotti

MODENA (ITALY): Music and film stars joined top political figures and tens of thousands of tearful fans to honour opera legend Luciano Pavarotti at his funeral on Saturday.

About 800 family, friends and special guests heard special tributes to the venerated tenor from Pope Benedict XVI during a mass at the cathedral in his hometown of Modena. Pavarotti died on Thursday aged 71.

Among mourners were Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, U2 rock star Bono and Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli.

Another 50,000 people watched the funeral on two giant screens set up in the main square outside the cathedral, according to Modena authorities.

Pavarotti's second wife Nicoletta Mantovani sat in front of the white maple coffin, which was covered in sunflowers, for the service. She watched in tears as the coffin was taken for a private burial in a family vault just outside Modena.

The event was virtually a state funeral. As the coffin left the cathedral, 10 planes from the Italian air force's aerobatic team flew over leaving a trail of smoke in the national colours - green, white and red.

"It's a special performance normally reserved for state funerals," team commander Massimo Tammaro said.

Recordings of Pavarotti's pristine tenor were played to the waiting crowds before the funeral service. Bulgarian soprano Raina Kabaivandska, a friend of Pavarotti, fought back tears as she started the 90 minute service with an "Ave Maria" taken from Giuseppe Verdi's "Otello".

The blind Italian singer Andrea Bocelli performed Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus".

In a special message read at the mass, Pope Benedict XVI called Pavarotti "a great artist who through his extraordinary talent for interpretation honoured the divine gift of music."

Prodi said in a eulogy that Pavarotti "made music an instrument of life and against war" and called him an "impassioned ambassador for Italy".

More than 100,000 people had filed past Pavarotti's coffin in the cathedral in the two days before the service.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano was among those to pay last respects on Friday.

"I wanted to testify personally to the emotion and the recognition of all Italians for the man who carried his voice and the purest image of our country throughout the world," he said.

Recordings of Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" by Pavarotti were to be played as a tribute before European Championship football matches later on Saturday, pitting Italy against France and England against Israel.

Pavarotti made the aria a new global hit when he sang it at the 1990 World Cup finals, helping to widen classical opera's appeal to the masses.

Pavarotti died at his villa near Modena after a long battle with cancer of the pancreas. He underwent major surgery for the illness in July 2006 and was hospitalised again for three weeks in August.

Tributes came from around the world to Pavarotti, including by his partners in the Three Tenors opera supergroup, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, though they were not at the service. Domingo said he had been held up at rehearsals in Los Angeles.

"I always admired the God-given glory of his voice -- that unmistakable special timbre from the bottom up to the very top of the tenor range," said Domingo in a statement.

Carreras added: "The best memories are the ones in intimacy. ... We have to remember him as the great artist he was, a man with such a wonderful charismatic personality."

Pavarotti broke into the opera world when he won a competition in 1961. He sang "Nessun Dorma" during his last major performance, at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Turin in February 2006.

He also managed to shock purists with his appearances in live concerts, sometimes alongside pop musicians. In 1991 a crowd of 150,000, including the Prince and Princess of Wales, braved the rain and cold in London's Hyde Park to hear him sing 20 arias by Verdi, Puccini, Bizet and Wagner.

Over the years he topped the British pop charts and appeared with rock stars ranging from Elton John and Eric Clapton to Bono, Zucchero and even the Spice Girls. Many of the concerts were for charity to raise money for causes such as children in Bosnia-Hercegovina.