Billed as a “Salute to Four Great Italian Tenors: Enrico Caruso, Mario Lanza, Luciano Pavarotti, and Andrea Bocelli,” a program “direct from Rome” titled “Viva Italia” featured “The Four Italian Tenors,” played to a downstairs audience of just under 500 in McCain Auditorium on Friday evening.

We can’t help having expectations. Like them or not, they’re going to be there, ready to be fulfilled or not. Mine for this event? First or all, after having enjoyed, in a now longish lifetime of concertgoing, the good fortune of hearing many young rising stars before they became fully risen celebrities, I was naturally hopeful that one or more of the four might actually show the stuff to be the next Caruso or Pavarotti. More frivolously, I wondered if the show’s title was meant to imply that “our” four tenors would in some sense model the vocal styles or repertories of those being saluted.

The printed program offered more fodder for expectations: brief bios/credits for the singers clarified that none of them has yet had a breakout role at a major opera house. A very bare, unannotated list of arias and songs (which turned out being only the pre-intermission sequence) began with four warhorses for operatic tenors, which led me to suppose each of the evening’s soloists would start off with an aria.

To the rear of an otherwise empty stage a pair of grand pianos faced each other. Nearer the front, four high stools stood ready for the singers. House lights down. We await the arrival of the soloists. Instead, enter the pianists (unnamed or credited in the printed program), who proceed to collaborate on a brief work (likewise unmentioned in the printed program) which receives (and deserves) dutiful but muted applause.

Finally, the big moment. The lead pianist, the evening’s emcee, announces “The Four Italian Tenors!” and on stage they come. And with their entry, my expectations are seriously compromised: they’re wearing face mics, meaning we’re not going to be hearing the next Caruso or Pavarotti because we’re not going to be hearing anybody’s real voice, because real, live operatic voices don’t pass through any electronic-assisting or enhancing medium.

Next expectations adjustment: the arias aren’t going to be sung by individual tenors. They’re each going to get shared out, their phrases passed from voice to voice among the four. At which point it became clear that what we were up for wasn’t anything like a traditional vocal recital. What we got instead was an Italian entertainment.

And it was certainly very Italian. Our singers delivered their song segments with humorously exaggerated portamento and rubato and macho verismo fervor, uniting on the frequent long-held big high notes, genially competing with one another over delivery style, even quibbling via rock/paper/scissors (in Italian, of course) as to who’s on next.

Taken together with much horseplay, especially post intermission, and crowd-assisted clapping (and even singing) assistance, the mix clearly caught the fancy and suited the party mood of those in attendance. Given that this act is still getting its act together, they may in fact turn out being rising “popera” stars.

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