Review: Three Tenors Bring U.S. Tour To D.C.

Finale included trio's signature take on 'O Sole Mio.'

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Ten years and more than 20 repeat performances after they put on their first show together in Rome, the Three Tenors still are the hottest ticket in classical music.

While Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti weren't hot enough to sell all 20,000 or so tickets at the MCI Center on Sunday, they did ask for — and get — an astonishing amount of bucks for their vocal bang.

Patrons at this event paid as much as $201 per tenor down front, to a somewhat less exorbitant $17.66 per tenor from behind the stage (where the only face they could see was that of conductor James Levine). Each of these tenors may be past his prime, but they rank among the great voices of the 20th century. At this show, each was allowed to do what he does best.

Domingo, the most versatile and vocally the best-preserved of the three, did some linguistic showing-off with numbers sung in French, Spanish, Italian and German. He sounded at home in each language and was most impressive in Franz Lehar's "Dein ist mein ganzes herz" ("Yours Is My Heart Alone"), which he sang in fine Viennese style.

Carreras and Pavarotti wisely stuck mostly to Italian, except in the first medley, which bounced through several languages, and the second, which featured American tunes in heavily accented English.

One joke came through with clarity in English. In "Moon River," instead of the usual "two drifters" off to see the world, Domingo substituted "three tenors" as a plug for what is being called their World Tour 2000.

Pavarotti's Voice In Good Shape

So far, it looks like a small world. The tour opened in Las Vegas, moved on to the Metropolitan Opera in New York (where they sang another program) and will continue at Browns Stadium in Cleveland on June 25 and Pepsi Arena in Albany, N.Y., on July 22.

There is one unanswered question: Why did Pavarotti sing Agustin Lara's "Granada" in the presence of two Spanish tenors who have made this song a specialty?

Pavarotti's performance was graceful and lyrical, but its style — his use of vibrato, the vowel coloring, the intensity of vocal production and support — was Italian, not Spanish. He compensated, later, with a performance of "Nessun dorma," from Puccini's Turandot, that brought down the house.

This has become his signature tune since his voice became a bit heavy for such bel canto items as Donizetti's "Une furtiva lagrima" ("A furtive tear"). Except for slight signs of strain on loud high notes, his voice was in good shape.

Carreras is a shade less famous than Domingo or Pavarotti, but those who love him do so intensely. They were out in force for this occasion, and he rose to the challenge with finely controlled emotional intensity — particularly impressive in the Neapolitan "Core 'ngrato" ("Ungrateful Heart").

Encores Breathe Life Into Rigid Show

The evening went like clockwork — perhaps a bit too much like clockwork, with a sense of efficient professionalism rather than spontaneity — until the encores, which were the best part of the show.

They included the ultimate tenor aria, "La donna e mobile" ("Women Are Treacherous"), from Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto; a performance of "Be My Love" that came across as a Mario Lanza imitation; an idiomatically Neapolitan "Torna a Sorriento" ("Come Back to Sorriento"), a hit song from long ago; "Amapola," sung in Spanish; and, in conclusion, a gag on "O sole mio" ("O My Sunshine") that has apparently become mandatory.

Ten years ago, in Rome, Pavarotti took one climactic syllable of this song, held it and poured on vibrato for a long time while Domingo and Carreras looked on, first amazed, then amused and finally ready to get back at him. When their turn came to sing the same note, they held it and elaborated on it just as Pavarotti had done only more so until the audience broke out in laughter.

It was funny 10 years ago, and it was still funny on Sunday night. Having given one standing ovation after another, the audience would probably not go home until this little joke was trotted out again. But the impression was created that even the most spontaneous moments had been programmed.