Two of the Three Tenors were wowing audiences in Melbourne this week: Plácido Domingo, now a baritone, as a splendid Nabucco in this season’s Metropolitan Opera Live in HD production and José Carreras in concert at the Margaret Court Arena.
A confession: of those three legendary tenors, Carreras has always been my favourite. I am among a host of his admirers who find the caressing lyricism of his voice totally irresistible. Even the ease of Pavarotti’s silvery magic as he repeated Una furtiva lagrima in the 1965 Sutherland-Williamson season of L’elisir d’amore did not offer quite the poetic enchantment of Carreras. Despite the drawbacks of a concert with amplification, it was with a great deal of excited anticipation that we eventually discovered the correct route to the Arena entrance.
The fact that audience members were still making a noisy entrance almost until interval was an indication that a more easily accessed venue would have been preferable. The clonking and clanking down concrete and metal and steps as patrons were ushered to seats, even while Carreras was pouring out his heart and soul, was a further indication of the venue’s drawbacks. Even the ushers seemed to be unaware that talking audibly while the orchestra played was inappropriate.
Still, the staging itself had its merits. From the wide screen mounted above the back of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, those without a souvenir program were able to follow what was being played – a helpful idea worth adopting for all events of this nature. The slides accompanying each item provided extra atmosphere and red-accented colour. Unfortunately, when it came to the series depicting “A Life in Opera” as the MSO played the Intermezzo from the zarzuela work, La Boda de Luis Alonso, we were reminded just how little opera was included in the program. Selected photographs from his 66 roles were scrolled through but the only aria sung by Carreras was Vesti la giubba; and even that was included in the final medley that presented no opportunity for applause until the Brindisi from La Traviata that concluded the printed program. By the end of the medley it felt as though you had just wolfed down a box of chocolates without being able to appreciate anything properly.
The indefatigable members of the MSO initiated proceedings with a spirited account of the Farandole from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite. Perhaps some of them were still on an adrenaline high from a wonderfully exciting evening in the Melbourne Town Hall under the baton of Nicholas Carter the previous evening. Although the visceral involvement of vibrations rising from a wooden floor was lacking on this occasion, an attentive and responsive Maestro David Giménez elicited suave, stylish playing from the orchestra.
When Carreras entered he looked frail, and the pale yellow lighting made him look unwell. Some mopping of the brow and the occasional cough tended to reinforce this impression. It may be true that Carreras is past his peak, but his delicate appearance was deceptive. He is an intelligent artist who knows how to pace himself; at no time did he appear in any danger of being stretched beyond his limits, even when he gave the climactic moments all the romantic passion they deserved. At times he seemed to have no need of any amplification; there was full-bodied engagement behind his distinctively appealing vocal quality and one yearned to experience it without any electronic filter.
Practically his entire repertoire for this concert was somehow connected with love in its various manifestations: from hopeful serenading to abject despair. Despite the lack of operatic material, his choice of Neapolitan songs and those connected to his native Barcelona were utterly charming and showcased his command of the idiom. Even Grieg’s love song from Songs of the Heart sounded just right in Catalan as T’estimo (I Love You).
Australian soprano Antoinette Halloran joined for Carreras for several duets, beginning with Satie’s Je te veux. Halloran has a particularly attractive personality, but there was little chemistry between the two as they sang to the audience rather than each other. Or was it to the microphones? They did watch each other when not singing. Halloran appeared more relaxed and vocally comfortable singing lighter repertoire rather than the more taxing operatic arias, especially after interval. Both singers received an increasingly warm reception during the course of the evening.
A turning point came when Carreras sang The Impossible Dream with utter conviction, ending the first half of the concert on a high note both figuratively and literally. The audience was ecstatic. He was our Man of La Mancha who has endured his own battle with leukaemia and continues to fight this scourge for all sufferers through his Foundation. It was one of the few numbers sung in English and all the more potent for that. The ever-popular Tonight from West Side Story was another.
The bestowing of bouquets was followed by a generous number of encores. Thanks to YouTube Carreras can be heard singing Non ti scordar ti me with Domingo as a tribute to their great tenor friend. You can also hear one of the highlights of the evening: Core n’grato (Catari, Catari) complete with the top note that was as secure and commanding as ever on Saturday night. It was music charged with emotion from and for the heart and the audience was on its collective feet.
The final number had the Olympic Rings pictured as the percussion beat out the rhythms of Amigos Para Siempre (Friends for Life), Andrew Lloyd Webber’s contribution to the Barcelona Olympics for Carreras and Sarah Brightman. And there we were, appropriately as it turned out, in a sporting arena with the audience cheering, whistling and applauding an extraordinary artist, very sad that “It is a time when we must say goodbye”.