Now that the pop sensation known as the Three Tenors has become such a tempting cash cow – even the Met’s sainted James Levine presides over these glitzy hippodrome events and pockets half a million each time – most people seem to have forgotten how innocently it all began. The original gathering of Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti at the 1990 World Cup finals in Rome was just a lark, a collegial salute to Carreras after his miraculous recovery from leukemia. We all know what that fun occasion led to: a surprise crossover success, ringing cash registers, and frequent reunions that mushroomed into a global industry. Not only are the three aging divos now superrich, but their twilight careers have been energized in ways no one could have predicted.
Take Jose Carreras, who might otherwise have never sung again on an opera stage in this country. Right now, at age 52, he is making his first appearances with an American company since 1987, in the demanding title role of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Sly, with the Washington Opera. While one has to admire the tenor for a risk he hardly needed to take – and at a fee that must be a fraction of what one arena concert brings in – an honest assessment of his performance is difficult, considering all the emotional baggage he now carries with him. Even critics hostile to the Three Tenors phenomenon draw the veil of charity over Carreras’s charmless contributions to those mechanized events, hesitating to point out that his voice lost its luster and lyric beauty long before its owner fell ill. Yet that unpleasant fact never seems to dampen the enthusiasm of his fans, who may be less interested in music and expressive singing than in applauding triumph over adversity.
That said, if Carreras the singer still has anything of musical value to offer, it is probably as an advocate of rarely performed operas like Sly, which would surely have continued to slumber in obscurity had it not caught his fancy. Placido Domingo’s clout must be factored in here as well, not only in his capacity as artistic director of the Washington Opera and Carreras’s good pal but also because this Sly production is his personal property, reputedly bought for nearly $2 million. Domingo hired his wife, Marta, to direct the show, and apparently he intends to star in it himself eventually, first in Los Angeles, where he soon will take over as that company’s artistic director, and later at the Metropolitan, where he pretty much enjoys carte blanche. If Wolf-Ferrari were alive today, he would surely be astonished to find such influential power brokers taking a proprietary interest in his neglected opera, first performed at La Scala in 1927, seldom staged anywhere since then, and never before seen in this country.
Is Sly worth these tenors’ valuable time and money? I would say yes – hesitantly, since most post-Puccini Italian operas still get a bad press, even from critics unable to name more than one or two of them. Like many other scores of quality that appeared between the wars, Sly never had a chance to establish itself in those troubled times, even though Wolf-Ferrari was already a highly visible European presence by the early years of the century. That was due, in part, to the cultural advantages of having a German father and an Italian mother, although by 1927 the problems of dual nationality had apparently begun to gnaw on the composer. Best known for a series of elegant operatic comedies based on Goldoni plays, Wolf-Ferrari unexpectedly turned his attention to this bitter, pessimistic subject, the tale of a poet driven to madness and suicide by a society not content merely to ignore its artists but to persecute them.
Christopher Sly is a vestigial character in the prologue to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, a drunken tinker tricked by a lord into thinking he is a nobleman. The dramatist Giovacchino Forzano (who originally offered the libretto to Puccini) took this slight incident and elaborated it into a tragic Pirandellian drama of identity crisis, misperception, and psychological game-playing with Sly, now a poet, as society’s scapegoat. A hallucinatory element is everywhere present, in Act One’s vicious tavern revels, in the delusional diversions at the Earl of Westmoreland’s castle, and in Sly’s return to reality when the wretched man, caged like an animal and thrown into the Earl’s wine cellar, breaks a bottle and slashes his wrists. Wolf-Ferrari clothes this grim drama with fastidiously crafted music of often exquisitely painful beauty. He retains the elements of his neoclassical style, closer to late Verdi than to the more heated passions of Puccini, but the vocal lines seethe with extraordinary expressive power and declamatory force.
Carreras makes an honorable stab at the role, but with his reduced vocal resources and robotic acting, he only suggests its potential. Sly requires a tenor with a ringing top, an easy flexibility at every dynamic level, a searingly eloquent delivery, and a mesmerizing dramatic presence. I can’t think of an Italian-style tenor today who even comes close to that, not even Domingo. The supporting cast is decent enough – Gregory Yurisich as the unscrupulous Westmoreland, Elisabete Matos as Dolly, the Earl’s mistress, who falls in love with Sly too late, and William Parcher as Sly’s only true friend, John Plake – but this is really a one-man opera. Sra. Domingo’s fussy stage direction and Michael Scott’s sketchy sets update the action to the year of the opera’s composition – a pointless gloss, since all sense of time and place is more or less eradicated by Act Two. Heinz Fricke presides over an orchestra that gives Wolf-Ferrari’s aristocratic instrumental score rather rough treatment.
Despite the disappointing production, it was instructive to see at last this intriguing work which I had known from the score but never dreamed would turn up in a theater near me. There are other works from the same era just as worthy of revival, and many of them, like Sly, focus on anti-heroes no less at odds with society than their composers seemed to have been: Riccardo Zandonai’s I Cavalieri di Ekebu, for example, or Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, both effective theater pieces with strong scores. Cyrano is surely a more suitable vehicle for Domingo than Sly at this late stage in his career, and perhaps we will see that opera yet. Never underestimate the power of a tenor.