You all know them: Three singin' guys in tuxes--two burly, one elfin--beseeching the heavens to grant them just one more high note, stretching their golden lungs in three-part harmony on a familiar aria, trying good-naturedly to outdo each other in volume and audience appeal.
Right: It's Andreas Scholl, Pascal Bertin and Dominique Visse, "The Three Countertenors" (Harmonia Mundi 901552)!
These Three Tenors have the courage of their vulgarity and egotism. They are higher-pitched and lighter-voiced gentlemen--a true countertenor, in one widely accepted definition, sings falsetto, sounding like a female alto rather than a pushed-up tenor--and are more into tasteful understatement than the Other Three. As specialists in Baroque opera and sacred music, they respect note values, their rhythm is exemplary and they sing in tune--which is part of the joke.
While their version of "O Sole Mio" lacks the climactic trilling contest of the Other Three, it's good enough to deserve a life of its own. The more obvious spoof, Carmen's "Haban~era" with Scholl as resident vamp and his colleagues as backup female chorus, makes its gender-bending point.
Subtleties abound thereafter, particularly in the work of the little guy, Visse (who has a face created for rascality), in the double-entendres of "Je Suis Grise" from Offenbach's "La Perichole."
There are other mini-hits, and a few misses. Among the latter, Dalila's 'Reponds a ma tendresse," lazily sung by Bertin and lacking its high B-flat, but Bertin compensates with his piano-bar version of "My Way," a song that sounds downright weird when sung, as here, in tune.
The intended grand finale, a three-part "Una furtiva lagrima," is a flop. Unlike the 3-T's (and Puccini's) "Nessun dorma," the Donizetti aria isn't a showpiece by nature. Furthermore, the countertenors deliver it so cautiously that it sounds more like a classroom exercise than a party piece.
Still, these three have much to offer: appealing voices, a low-key sense of humor and musicianship, all in the service of an act well-suited to a small concert hall, a hip club or, obviously, for home listening.
"Pavarotti and Friends 2" (London 444 460)--I missed No. 1--comes from another direction. No intentional put-ons here. This is a program with more kinds of crossing over than you'd find at a jaywalkers' convention.
The Fat Man With Hanky does give us the pseudo-folk material (e.g., "Chitarra Romana") that has become part of every Italian tenor's repertory. But mostly it's duets and ensembles with "friends" from the worlds of pop and opera, beginning with a "Moon River" delivered with alarming flatness of pitch by Pavarotti and operatic demi-diva Nancy Gustafson. The wobbling soprano then proceeds to do damage all by herself in "All I Ask of You" from "Phantom of the Opera" and Dvorak's "Oh, Silver Moon."
Co-star of the event--recorded live, we're told, in a park in Pavarotti's native Modena--is Canadian soft-rocker Bryan Adams, whose adenoidal whine is curiously mated to Pavarotti's ringing clarity in their "O Sole Mio." But Adams has both good rhythm (better than that of Italian pop idol Giorgia, a presence elsewhere here) and decent Italian. As an encore, Adams gives us his signature "Please Forgive Me," with his own band and without Pavarotti.
There are also gratuitous contributions by harpist Andreas Vollenweider and tenor Andrea Bocelli, the latter a Pavarotti protege and perpetuator of his master's mannerisms, but with half the voice and even less of his ebullience.
The grand finale is in two parts: First, the assembled crew sings Adams' "All for Love," which manages to sound rather like "We Are the World," then the "Brindisi" from "La Traviata," with the audience contributing desultory rhythmic applause, as in a figure-skating exhibition.
This "Brindisi" isn't pretty: all those performing styles, at cross-purposes with each other and with Verdi. It does, however, confirm that even with all the pandering and fooling around of the past decade, Luciano Pavarotti retains one of the most glorious sets of chops in the business.