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Sunday, September 13, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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On Second Thought

Tenors Hit The Highest C: Commerce

Seattle Times Music Critic

It seemed like such a good idea, back in 1990.

That's when the Three Tenors made their first joint appearance in Rome, in conjunction with the World Cup soccer final. It was a great excuse for three ardent soccer fans to combine a singing gig with the sports event they wanted most to see. And besides, the youngest of the three - Jose Carreras - had just made a miraculous comeback from leukemia, and his colleagues had put aside their old rivalries in cheering their comrade during his illness.

They might even make some money.

All that, of course, is now part of history, and the institution of the Three Tenors has gathered steam during (and between) the two successive World Cups since then. Under the guidance of shrewd promoter Tibor Rudas, who has inserted his own name into every Three Tenors title (most recently, "Tibor Rudas Presents the Three Tenors Carreras, Domingo, Pavarotti with Levine, Paris 1998"), the tenorial trio has ridden an endless wave of PR hype the way snowboarders ride moguls. Heck, they've become moguls; their first two Three Tenors CDs sold a total of $23 million, making them the best-selling classical artists of all time. (Of course, they continue their individual careers, especially the indefatigable Domingo, with an estimated total of 300 performances annually among the three of them.)

Now we have the Paris, 1998, version of the Three Tenors at the World Cup, recorded in front of the Eiffel Tower (and buffed up considerably in the recording studio) before a live audience estimated in "the hundreds of thousands" at the Champ de Mars. It's yet another "concert of the century," as the new CD (Atlantic 83110-2) boasts on its cover.

The Rudas organization waxes expansive in the accompanying promotional materials. One version has a billion TV viewers watching the Paris concert live; the liner notes say nearly two billion. There are more facts and figures, many more: a production team of 1,200 for the concert, a set made of 180 tons of steel transported by 16 trucks to the site, 100,000 watts of power, 50,000 meters of cable, beaming the event live to more than 75 countries on five continents. Parisian bartenders even concocted a "Three Tenors Cocktail" for the event.

Listening to the CD, however, makes you long for one of those cocktails. There are some individual high points, but these voices - especially Pavarotti's and Carreras' - are not in good shape. It's painful to hear Pavarotti slip-sliding his way through an erratic "Granada." Somehow, the artistic values have gotten lost in all those statistics; we have the inevitable medleys (in soupy Lalo Schifrin arrangements), and a reprise of too many past hits (from "O Sole Mio" to "Nessun Dorma"), all sung at lower musical wattage than before.

Will Three Tenors fans care? Probably not. I'll bet most fans wouldn't be able to tell if a bogus tenor or two had been slipped into the lineup at the recording studio (not a bad idea, incidentally). Here's betting the Tenors will be back, for as many more World Cups and intermediate tours as their promoter can arrange, providing fodder for yet more public-television fund drives.

It may not be great art - but the Three Tenors are great commerce. - Melinda Bargreen Seattle Times music critic

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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