Entertainment Music

Sunday 8 December 2019

Classical: World Cup's classical edge is still strong

Opera superstars Placido Domingo, left, Jose Carreras, centr,e and Luciano Pavarotti
Opera superstars Placido Domingo, left, Jose Carreras, centr,e and Luciano Pavarotti

George Hamilton

It all began at Italia 90. The Republic of Ireland's first World Cup also signalled the start of a significant musical development. There would be a classical edge to the tournament, and things would never be the same again.

The night before the final, at the ancient Caracalla Baths in Rome, a trio of opera singers at the top of their game took to the stage. The Three Tenors were born.

Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti. Who'd have expected it? Big names, they were deemed to be big rivals. But one of them – Carreras – had fallen seriously ill some years before, and in an expression of gratitude for his recovery from leukaemia, he'd set up a foundation to promote research into the disease.

Domingo and Pavarotti, with the assistance of an Italian producer, came up with the idea of a spectacular to welcome back their rival to the concert stage, and to raise funds for his charity.

With Zubin Mehta conducting the combined forces of the Maggio Musicale Festival Orchestra from Florence and the Orchestra of the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, they sang four numbers each before launching into a medley together – familiar songs, the best of opera and some Neapolitan classics.

It was Pavarotti who provided the showstopper. Nessun Dorma he sang – "None shall sleep". This stand-out song from Puccini's Turandot took flight. It became an unofficial anthem of football, and the World Cup in particular. The concert was released on CD, and became the biggest-selling classical album there had ever been. The tenors repeated the performance on the eve of the 1994 World Cup Final, in Dodger Stadium in LA. I had only seen the Rome concert on TV. Here, I was in the audience, and what a spellbinding experience it was.

The programme was familiar. It was the charisma of the three men on stage as the Californian sun set that gave it such an edge.

World Cup repeat concerts followed, in Paris in 1998, and in Yokohama in 2002. But by the time the next World Cup rolled around in 2006, Pavarotti was already 70 and ill with the cancer that would kill him the following year. Carreras was about to turn 60 and no longer able to maintain a gruelling concert schedule.

So in Berlin, exactly 16 years on from the original, Domingo took to the stage, this time with the 21st Netrebko and Rolando Villazón. Commitments meant Domingo didn't perform in South Africa in 2010, but, Real Madrid fan that he is, he flew to Johannesburg for the decider between Spain and the Netherlands.

He was back in action in Rio last night, warming up for this year's Final tomorrow.

Now 73, and concentrating on his role as a conductor as the years take their toll on his voice, he took to the stage to sing in a concert that also featured the Chinese pianist Lang Lang – star of the Olympic Opening Ceremony in Beijing in 2008 – and the Puerto Rican soprano, Ana María Martínez.


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