Enough with the Three Tenors, already

Do audiences really need yet another mammoth concert by the once-dynamic trio of Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti?

May 07, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Been there, heard that.

In a nutshell, that's why you won't find me among the thousands of happy people at the MCI Center in Washington tonight for the latest presentation of that durable combo known as the Three Tenors. To tell the truth, I'd rather catch another Three Stooges marathon on AMC.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those snobs who refuse to acknowledge the entertainment value of these mammoth, powerfully amplified concerts with their building-size closed-circuit TV screens.

If the prospect of hearing Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti belt out a few operatic chestnuts and a medley of pop tunes makes you want to fork over beaucoup bucks, go for it. The tenors will no doubt appreciate your business, as will their managers and merchandisers.

But having made it through three of these concerts already, one live and two on TV, I think I've got the idea. And, though I've found some of the trio's performances engaging in the past, the whole business has worn pretty thin for me by now.

I had hoped these stadium/convention center concerts were just a '90s thing, a harmless fling for opera singers whose popularity had grown so dramatically that it was worth trying to find a wider avenue for it.

After so many Three Tenors gigs around the globe, and so many arena solo concerts by each of them since the '80s, can there really be much more mileage left in the concept? You'd think that someone in charge would say, "Well, that was fun. Now let's try to come up with a more artistically meaningful thing to do with these guys."

Instead, I have visions of the tenacious tenors being pushed in wheelchairs onto the field at, say, Camden Yards, their faces still frozen in those familiar smiles; Pavarotti still clutching that handkerchief; all three men still keeping their eyes glued to the music for "Moon River" (and still having trouble making it sound like a natural vehicle for their voices).

On the other hand, there may not be a big demand left for the concerts. When the Three Tenors played Miami a few years back, seats were available right up to the downbeat; a little later, a scheduled date in Houston was scrapped, and word on the street was that it had been a box-office bomb.

Judging by ads I saw, tickets for tonight's Washington performance were not exactly scarce. And a couple of weeks ago, Tibor Rudas, the indefatigable promoter behind the tenor triumvirate, announced that his organization was giving away 300 seats through the Internet.

As long as concert-goers don't confuse these events with high art, no great damage is done. At least Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti paid their dues the old-fashioned way before getting into this racket. They worked up through the ranks of traditional opera houses, proved themselves genuine vocal artists. Wannabe tenor Andrea Bocelli essentially started in oversized venues, crooning for oversized paychecks with the help of oversized speakers, and only now is trying to learn the operatic ropes.

Bizarre.

From novel to numbing

What we're talking about with these concerts, of course, is show biz. But not even great show biz, not any more. Back at the first Three Tenors outing, tied in with the World Cup soccer matches in Rome, the situation was, well, more admirable. Pavarotti and Domingo were honoring their colleague Carreras, then recovering from leukemia; all three men were celebrating their love of soccer. Their coming together was more of a happy fluke, a kick, a convergence of talent and good intentions. There wasn't even that much money involved.

Today, the novelty is faded. Besides, Carreras has been steadily declining in vocal ability since the Three Tenors show made its debut. Pavarotti has been showing his age for quite some time. And, depending on how much he has been singing or conducting or administrating in a given week, Domingo can sound a bit frayed around the edges, too.

When you consider how well microphones can relay technical blemishes, it's hard to get too wildly excited about the prospect of entering the latest convention center or stadium on the tenors' open-ended tour. Add in the constricted format of these concerts, and you've got even more of a reason to stay home with your CDs.

Spontaneity is virtually absent at these events. It's bad enough that the singing usually comes across as prepackaged, with the singers standing frozen in front of the microphones. But, from what I've been able to observe, there isn't even any banter from the stage to lend a human touch to the proceedings.

I've never heard a simple "Good evening" or "Thank you" from any one of the tenors, let alone a "Sure is great being here in (fill in the city)" or "How about a big hand for the orchestra?" It was the same when I took in a Bocelli concert.

How strange for classical musicians to enter the milieu of pop/rock stars, with huge venues and speaker towers and fans chomping on hot dogs, but then maintain such an impersonal atmosphere.

None of the drawbacks of the Three Tenors concerts would matter, I suppose, if they really did generate legions of new opera fans, as is often suggested. But I've yet to meet anyone who decided to check out, say, "Lucia di Lammermoor" because of exposure to this trio, so I'm skeptical.

I suspect these concerts generate merely more sales of Three Tenors recordings, videos, T-shirts and what-not. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Putting millions of dollars in the singers' (and their promoters') pockets is part of the package. More power to them.

But believing that the art of opera, or music in general, is truly served by placing three tenors on a stage filled with electronic equipment and letting them lead 15,000 people in a sing-along version of the "Brindisi" from "La Traviata" requires more faith than I can summon.

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