José Carreras

benefit at Avery Fisher Hall
(Feb. 8, 2003)

by John Mucci
from OperaMusic

Flying without a program at Avery Fisher is a mixed blessing. On Saturday evening, José Carreras, veteran of any number of artistic storms and physical challenges, weathered the squall of an impatient audience with the insouciant warmth of a master performer. Since the evening was a benefit for ocular-related leukemia research, perhaps the roster of selections wasn't deemed important enough to publish, but more than likely was an unfortunate oversight.

An air of intrigue was afoot, however, from the moment we were searched by New York's finest caribineri before being allowed to enter the hall. Once frisked and granted permission to sit, the audience's general malaise was intensified by the thrumming sound of thousands of thumbs searching in vain through their programs for the details on what was to be performed, as it was rumored to be "Spanish Songs," exclusively.

When the public has a scorecard of what's coming up, there is a built-in anticipation; when there is a chain of unfamiliar numbers, it feels rather like a quiz, and there is a built-in anxiety for the future—after all, what if he suddenly breaks into "Some Enchanted Evening" with no chance to stampede to the restroom? One needs to be prepared for that sort of thing.

The Hispanic contingent populating the arroyos of the hall, decked in furs the color of which no animal would be caught dead in, were ardent in their focus on the Catalán tenor, but their excitement was palpably dimmed as one ensorcelled Tosti canzone after another sailed from the stage, and they muttered (reminiscent of a vintage TV commercial), "that's Italian."
Carreras going for the clutch
Señor Carreras, going for the clutch.

Señor Carreras, accompanied by the Manhattan Orchestra, led by Maestro Guiménez, slowly worked his way into a bravura performance. Very careful of his rather fragile voice, he does not push. While his lower register is dramatic and warm, it can (and did) get swamped in some of the thickly textured music.
As this mystery-tour evening progressed, his voice became stronger and the higher notes more powerful, always presented with taste and good discretion.

The Iberian groundlings (taking their cue from the days of "The 3 Tenors" when the audience would demand imperiously, "Nes-sun Dor-ma!—Nes-sun Dor-ma!" like a rugby chant) filled the explosive gaps between the unknown numbers with their rhythmic grumbles of "Gra-na-da, Gra-na-da..." insistent and low, now sounding more like the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes.

At intermission, the management prudently felt it necessary to fill in the audience on the programmatic material that the producer had neglected to print for the bill. Where they found the gentleman who made this important announcement over the loudspeakers is yet another mystery, but he was so thoroughly unacquainted with the pronunciation of Spanish, French, Italian—and English, that what actual language he spoke on the street was a subject of some discussion among the audience. His unfamiliarity with such titles as "L'Ultima Canzone" caused a well-earned respite, amid howls of mirth at halftime. After all, who knew that "Mascagni" rhymed with "James Cagney"—or Verdi with "hurdy-gurdy?"

To affirm his good-natured humor, Señor Carreras also jumped on the bandwagon and announced what he'd sung in the first half, only in greater detail. A massive discovery was made that one piece had originated in a zarzuela, the actual title of which was delivered in a roiling purr that drilled straight into the hearts of the Happy Claque who then buzzed the very word zarzuela, zzarzzuela, sometimes with up to 15 z's—(anyone who has not worked in an apiary cannot fully appreciate the murmuring of innumerable zarzuelabees). Delighted to find out that they had indeed not been listening only to Italian music, their appetites were doubly whetted for more.

Pacing himself admirably, Carreras generally sang two numbers and then retired to allow the orchestra to plow along without him, performing such favorites as the Overture to the Barber of Seville, and the Intermezzo from L'Amico Fritz, which no one seemed to know, or during which at least those around me ceased to hum. While the Manhattan Orchestra is not a well known cultural entity ("what is this, a pickup orchestra?" as the man behind me noted), its enthusiasm sometimes oversteps its accompanying nature. The percussion, particularly the cymbals, got a workout that suggested the performer might reconsider smashing his instruments together with such unvarying gusto, as it left no semblance of contrast to the imagination.

Act II was of a studiedly more intense flavor, each air ending with a high cadence, usually attacked with the singer taking an aggressive boxing position with a clenched fist on the high notes. Three audience members not familiar with either concert protocol or common sense may have taken this aggressive pose too literally, and wildly took flash photos (of each other! of the orchestra! of the audience! whoo-hoo!) and made urgent cellphone calls throughout the second half. Why the caribineri were not called in to repress these members of the gentry—if not to shoot them outright, was the penultimate mystery, unless the police's presence was required overseas.

After this musical terra incognita, Señor Carreras announced that we had reached the 'last item' on the musical agenda. Generous, knowing applause.

After the supposed final number, however, the audience began its curious parting dance, consistently leaping to its feet like gophers in an amusent park game, and chanting the koaxial "gra-Na-da, gra-Na-da..." over and over: a mantra: a mandala. A brief, awkward pause: then the encores began. In earnest. Señor Giménez saluted his orchestra with four fingers raised (—"what, it's in four sharps?" quipped my companion). What could be better? Another high note, another boxing stance, another ending chord, then applause and more leaping lizards scattered around the auditorium. Pause. Then another cue from the maestro: six fingers. Mirabile dictu, another encore. Another canzone. What could be better? Another high note, another ending chord, replete with cymbalism. Popping gophers kaleidescopically dotting the horizon, accompanied by the Grenadian grenades growling all about. What could be better? Maestro with three fingers to the orchestra: what could that portend? Ah, but it was all too familiar. It was evident that Carreras was going to have more parting shots than Sarah Bernhardt.

But just what were those all-too familiar opening bars? The terror of realization swept over us all, but it was too late—we couldn't get out in time. There was no way we could have broken through the phalanx of froglets before being reduced to actually hearing him sing "Some Enchanted Evening," at the end of which you can't help but murmur, "please, let me go..."

The ghost of Richard Rodgers laid to rest, and the pop tarts in the auditorium now plentifully pipping like popcorn— this must be the end! The Ultima Canzone. But no. Once more: the retiring artistes, once more: their magical reappearance, and more 3 Tenors material, now appropriated by this One Very Tired Tenor: "All the Things You Are." The evening was sliding downhill fast. Next we feared he'd start tapping his foot and twirling a lariat singing "Oklahoma!"

When the torrent of electrically-powered hotseat gophers all popped up (for the last time? the last time?) it seemed prudent to rise hopefully and don my coat, apologetically looking to the politely seated cogniscenti around me, who were convinced I was unconsciously ovating under the brainwashing of the Grenadinieri.

Joining the harangue, I shouted out "Let-him-go-Home. Let-him-go-Home." But undaunted, a sixth redoubt was repulsed by the Maestro, avouching this encore with a single raised digit, an ominous '1' to the orchestra. And while the opening four bars were not recognized outright, the first two sung notes: "Gra-Naaaaaa..." were met with a clamor unmatched since the days of the Beatles. The bluefurry señora at my side was so overcome, the word swoon would not be adequate without at least a dozen O's.

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©2001 John C. Mucci. All rights reserved.