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Mourners bid farewell to "Maestro"

world Updated: Sep 08, 2007 00:29 IST

Thousands of mourners filed past the open coffin of Luciano Pavarotti in the cathedral of his Italian hometown on Friday, in an emotional farewell to the singer whose death prompted tributes from around the world.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano joined the crowds in Modena's ancient cathedral where fans were allowed a last look at one of the greatest tenors in opera's history.

"I wanted to personally represent the emotion and the gratitude of Italians from every place and every class towards someone who took with him everywhere the purest voice and the purest image of our country," Napolitano said.

The imposing, bearded opera star, who died on Thursday of cancer at the age of 71, was dressed in a black tuxedo, hands folded on his stomach and holding a white handkerchief -- a favorite prop during his recitals -- and a rosary.

Mourners included his second wife, Nicoletta Mantovani, who carried their four-year-old daughter Alice in her arms, and his first wife, Adua Veroni, with two of his three daughters from that marriage, who are all in their 40s.

The Italian air force's aerobatic squadron will fly over the cathedral before the funeral on Saturday which will be broadcast live on television and on giant screens for crowds outside.

"He brought to the world everything that is good about this town: simplicity, honesty and happiness," said Luigi Febbrano, a 51-year-old court clerk waiting outside the 12th-century church.

Condolences flooded in from around the world, with U.S. President George W. Bush and Russia's Vladimir Putin joining opera singers Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras in praising the voice and the man.

"The world at your feet," read the headline in a local paper in Modena, the town where Pavarotti was born into a humble family -- his father a baker, his mother a cigar factory worker -- and which he never forgot despite his stardom.

Pavarotti music was selling out at a local music store. "Sales are always good but since yesterday it has been crazy," said store manager Giovanni Ricci.

His gilded voice and huge personality touched millions around the world, and he achieved superstardom at the celebrated "Three Tenors" concert with Domingo and Carreras in Rome during the 1990 soccer World Cup in Italy.

"Nessun Dorma" will be played ahead of Euro 2008 soccer matches by the Italian and English national teams on Saturday.

Pavarotti had surgery for cancer in New York in July 2006, then retreated to Modena where he had two weeks of treatment in hospital last month before going home for the last time.

He spent his final hours at home with family and friends by his side, said his manager Terri Robson. She told Reuters that Pavarotti's family wanted the funeral to be private, but celebrity friends and fans are expected from around the world.

U2 frontman Bono, one of several rock stars to have performed with Pavarotti, confirmed he would attend.

Blind Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli will sing in the church service which is scheduled for 3 p.m. (1300 GMT) on Saturday.

The voice of Pavarotti himself may also ring out, local media reported, saying organizers were considering playing a recording of him singing the hymn "Panis Angelicus" -- "bread of angels" -- with his father.

The tenor will be laid to rest at the Montale Rangone cemetery near his villa, where his parents and his stillborn son Riccardo are buried.

The atmosphere was somber at Modena cathedral as mourners of all ages passed slowly by the coffin, some stopping to kneel in the pews and pray, others signing memorial books outside.

But a black-and-white picture of a smiling Pavarotti watched over the mourners to remind them of the singer's bonhomie and legendary fondness for the good things in life.

"I hope St Peter welcomes you with a chunk of parmesan and a bottle of Lambrusco, ice-cold as you like it," said Pavarotti's friend, Italian rock singer Zucchero.