'Tosca' tenor has big-time potential Preview: Singer appearing in Baltimore has been likened to a young Placido Domingo.

April 20, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Some opera fanatics compare the absence of good tenors on today's opera stages to the lack of leadership in Congress.

But Cesar Hernandez says there are as many good tenors as ever.

"The problem is that the public is aware of only three -- [Luciano] Pavarotti, [Placido] Domingo and [Jose] Carreras -- and every tenor will remain in their shadows until they retire," says Hernandez, who sings the starring tenor role of Cavaradossi tonight in the new Baltimore Opera Company production of Puccini's "Tosca."

"It's always unfair to compare a young singer to a master who is still at the peak after a long and distinguished career," says Hernandez, who's 35. "I have a friend about my age who's a wonderful tenor. But when he made his debut in New York last week, he was unfairly compared to Luciano instead of being appreciated for what he is."

Hernandez speaks of Roberto Alagna, the Franco-Sicilian tenor, who had been hailed as the "fourth tenor" and whose first appearance at the Metropolitan Opera in "La Boheme" had received devastating reviews from critics hungry for blood.

"All young singers today -- no matter how talented -- face similar problems," Hernandez says.

He should know. For if Alagna, 33, has been compared to Pavarotti, the Brooklyn-born and Puerto Rican-reared Hernandez is frequently compared to Domingo.

Truth to tell, it seems a good comparison -- for Hernandez, who is tall, dark, very good-looking and Spanish-speaking, bears a striking resemblance to the Domingo of nearly 25 years ago. Opera insiders say the young tenor's voice, which has an almost baritonal lower register and a lovely ringing top, resembles that of the older master. And Domingo himself has championed Hernandez, ever since the young Puerto Rican sang Cassio to Domingo's Otello more than 10 years ago in a Puerto Rican production of Verdi's "Otello."

"He told me, 'You have a lovely voice, you should keep studying,' " Hernandez recalls.

Domingo did more than that. His interest in the young singer, along with the financial support of several wealthy Puerto Ricans, helped make it possible for Hernandez to come to New York to study with several prominent teachers. And the great Spanish singer helped coach him for performances at Italy's Spoleto Festival in the title role of "Goya" -- an opera composed specifically for Domingo by Gian Carlo Menotti.

The older singer has even conducted for the younger one, most recently two months ago during a Barcelona production in which Hernandez sang Alfredo in Verdi's "La Traviata."

"He certainly understands singers," says Hernandez of Domingo's conducting. "He knows the problems they face."

And Hernandez himself understands something of tenorial history.

"Domingo and Pavarotti arrived at a key point [in the early 1970s] of the history of opera," he says. "Television and, only a few

years later, videos made it possible to make a singer larger than life in a way that had not been possible since the coincidence at the beginning of the century of the flowering of [Enrico] Caruso's career with the introduction of phonograph records. If you think about some of the tenors who dominated the scene before Pavarotti's arrival, you come up with an extraordinary list that includes Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Giuseppe di Stefano and perhaps two dozen more. And one of them, [Jussi] Bjoerling, was so great -- so beautiful in tone and so perfect in technique -- that he probably would be bigger than anybody if he were to come along today.

"Everyone is an eventual loser when comparisons are made," Hernandez says. "I just try to do my best."

Pub Date: 4/20/96

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