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La Commedia è Finita

The Met repackages the Three Tenors into opera even lighter, but the trill is gone; the once-great Carlo Bergonzi takes on "Otello" -- and murders Verdi.

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Hootenanny: From left, José Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti, and Plácido Domingo at the Met.  

Can time be running out for The Three Tenors and their lucrative pop act? After the latest arena concert, earlier this month in Washington, D.C., the Washington Post reported thousands of empty seats, especially in the most expensive rows. Even the tenors themselves seem to be getting a bit bored with it all. According to Post music critic Philip Kennicott, "the unscripted good fun of the original concert has been replaced by the well-oiled-machine approach, and a lot of the charm of the Three Tenors has fizzled away."

As has a lot of the vocal freshness, one might add, since the group first linked up ten years ago. No matter. If this cash cow actually is beginning to dry up, the trio can always fall back on real opera, where nostalgia forgives practically everything. Always the eager innovator, the Metropolitan Opera recently varied the Three Tenors formula by presenting the divos with their current obliging accompanist on the podium, James Levine, in an evening of staged opera scenes. Grandly titled A Millennium Celebration, the festivities comprised three (very short) acts from three operas: Act Two of Andrea Chénier with Plácido Domingo singing the title role, the final act of Carmen with José Carreras as Don José, and Act Three of Turandot with Luciano Pavarotti as Calaf.

This was actually a pretty skimpy celebration for those who remember the generously filled all-star evenings that Met general manager Sir Rudolf Bing used to offer years ago; at this gala, the intermissions seemed longer than the action onstage. Still, many were clearly thrilled to hear Pavarotti sing his signature tune, "Nessun dorma," for the umpteenth time, and he steeled himself for a ringing high B that brought down the house. After that accomplishment, Pavarotti seemed to lose interest, and the lazy singer we know today took over: musically sloppy, rhythmically slack, seldom in sync with the orchestra, and dramatically inert. At one point during the final duet with Turandot, he took a step and literally fell on his face. Jane Eaglen, looking rather like a huge Chinese tea cozy, gallantly disguised a potentially embarrassing moment by blocking Big P from view, but her singing, nondescript and often flat, was only pedestrian. Not the most idiomatic Liu perhaps, Patricia Racette was at least vocally honest and affecting in her death scene.

It has been thirteen years since Carreras last sang on the Met stage, and his mere appearance generated an ovation. Although the tenor blew out his lovely lyric voice years ago, long before his bout with and recovery from leukemia, that doesn't seem to bother his fans. I suppose the doggedly earnest nature of his performance style generates a certain appeal, but he did little more with Don José's music, all eight minutes of it, than yell out the notes. Having recently heard Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's elegantly sung Carmen broadcast from Boston, I am now more eager than ever to see her in the whole opera. The detached hauteur she assumes as she goads Don José into murder is fascinating and suggests an unusually compelling conception of this problem role.

There are no arias in Act Two of Andrea Chénier, but the tenor does have two juicy duets, and Domingo sounded quite splendid in both of them. But then, he always was a canny singer in matters of vocal preservation, and he is certainly far more musically sophisticated than his two tenor partners. Even so, I doubt that he would want to tackle a complete Chénier at this late date in his career, judging from the many downward transpositions he has to make these days. Daniela Dessì sang a pleasant if rather bland Maddalena, one more reminder that dramatic sopranos exuding true hot-blooded italianatà in this heated repertory are now virtually extinct.

Conspicuously on view in a shared box at Carnegie Hall, the three supertenors took time off a week before their Met date to cheer on a senior colleague, Carlo Bergonzi, in a feat of derring-do. At the age of 75, Bergonzi was about to sing Verdi's Otello for the first time, in a concert performance with the Opera Orchestra of New York conducted by Eve Queler. James Levine was also spotted in the audience. So were a host of opera luminaries past and present, including Licia Albanese, Marilyn Horne, Anna Moffo, James Morris, Sherrill Milnes, and Aprile Millo. At least two Franco Corelli sightings were reported. Opera professionals from every area of the business filled the hall, along with hundreds of fans and curiosity seekers. Even a tenor half Bergonzi's age would have been rattled at the prospect of singing Verdi's most strenuous tenor role before this audience, so the unhappy results did not entirely come as a surprise. After two painful acts, it was all over, and the tenor sent the audience his regrets.

Some insisted that Bergonzi had sung a miraculous Otello at the dress rehearsal but was just having one of those bad days that can afflict any singer. I'd like to believe that, but after all the excuses had been made, the voice still sounded more or less as one would expect for a man of Bergonzi's age: worn, unsupported, and breathless, the characteristic timbre dried up and toneless. Pitches were barely indicated, and the declamatory power any tenor must possess to sing Otello was never even suggested. Although the tenor needed all the help he could get, the slapdash orchestral playing, Kallen Esperian's pallid Desdemona, and Alberto Gazale's promising but callow Iago only made the evening more painful.

It's difficult to understand why a man of Bergonzi's taste and intelligence would, at this late date, even want to tackle an opera he had prudently avoided when he was in his prime and considered by many as the leading Verdi stylist of his generation. A defiant fist in the face of time? A last-ditch effort to sing a Verdi role he had always dreamed about performing even though it never really suited him? If so, why take the risk in such a glaring public spotlight as Carnegie Hall? Bergonzi obviously finds it difficult to let go, and over the years he has sung several sentimental farewell recitals in New York. They were always dignified affairs in which he at least suggested the grace, style, and poise of the peerless lyric tenor he once was -- the one most of us would prefer to remember rather than the sad figure of this doomed enterprise.


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