The California concert, in a Hollywood-inspired stage set with columns, implied a place of dreams - or cigarette ads - where none of the strong realities of the 1990 concert could possibly be revived. This was a stage to inspire cuteness in the singers, and to rouse conductor Zubin Mehta to gestures so large he appeared to be conducting the whole celebrity-filled audience instead of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and three singers only 10 feet from his podium.
Much of the concert sent the tenors limping through medleys of show tunes, richly arranged by Lalo Schifrin. The three combined on "My Way," with words apparently translated into Urdu, as a tribute to Frank Sinatra, who was seated in the second row. They sang "Singin' in the Rain" to Gene Kelly and overwhelmed "Because," probably because they could.
Since so much of the program was clotted with those show tunes and the accompanying difficulties of singing English, the chance to hear these singers in their natural milieu was much reduced. The high point of the concert was Pavarotti's performance of "Nessun dorma" in the second half. The piece has become signature to Pavarotti, and whether he is the tenor to sing Calaf in Turandot did not surface as a question here. He sang the aria with an urgency and clarity that brought the sense and drama of the opera to that vast audience.
The format presented each tenor separately at the opening, each singing an operatic aria. Domingo emerged from this trial the winner. His singing of an aria from Verdi's Luisa Miller showed him in command of voice and artistry, able to sway the restless audience with the accumulating force of his presentation.
Carreras, who was treated subtly as a kind of kid brother along for the ride, was ill-served by singing "Be My Love." The piece asks for a tenor who can make its shallowness seem emotional. He was better in the aria from Le Cid with which he opened, and in some of the snatches from Verdi arias at the end.
As the event went on, the tenors undertook some comic stage business. None was funnier than the huge trill Pavarotti introduced in "O sole mio." After staring at each other for a moment, Carreras and Domingo trilled together in winning parody of tenor excess.
The three made a big event of arias from La Traviata and Rigoletto offered as encores, but oh! those medleys! with their mysteries of language.
Television viewers heard the concert as a major fund-raiser for National Public Radio. Host Itzhak Perlman was out of his depth - strange for a man who tells stories so well. He lamely tried to bring baseball analogies into his comments and knew little of what was going to happen onstage; when words failed him, he called on co-commentator Willo Carey, WHYY-TV director of development, who was overwhelmed beyond words by the goings-on. They were probably the only two rendered speechless by the event.