MUSIC / All the family favourites: David Fanning enjoys Fanfare For a New World, a starry open-air extravaganza of music and dance in Liverpool

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS billed as 'the largest operatic event Britain has ever seen'. Well the 'largest' may be debatable, 'operatic' even more so, but an event it undeniably was - and, of its kind, a successful one. With 30 great operatic hits, eight international stars to sing them, Peter Ustinov as Master of Ceremonies, and the illuminated Tall Ships as the nearest thing to a romantic skyline Liverpool can offer, how could it have failed?

In fact, all too easily. The seating arrangements for 15,000 in the King's Dock could have been totally chaotic (they were only moderately so), the poor-man's Michael Jackson lighting and back projections could have been embarrassing (they were just naff), the sound projection could have wrecked everything (it was fine), and the fireworks could have been damp squibs (they went well and were a welcome surprise). Balmy Barcelona it wasn't, but neither was it Hyde Park rain. And above all, the stars turned up - well, eight of the 10 originally announced - and delivered the goods.

It would probably be fogeyish, not to say unhistorical, to worry about opera being treated as a sport and a public relations exercise. In any case it was more the predictability of the whole thing which left the appetite unsatisfied, though the Paco Pena Fiesta Flamenco Company offered the most theatrical experience of the evening.

After Korngold's Sea Hawk overture, Rita Hunter was first on stage with a 'Dich teure Halle' from Tannhauser which set an unbeatable standard for width of vibrato; and she returned to give the audience exactly what it wanted with Turandot's 'In questa reggia'. Montserrat Caballe showed how sheer individuality can triumph over frailty of line, even in an aria as demanding as 'Casta diva'. Her unique timbre, rough on the palate like a good Spanish wine, made something memorable even out of the ingratiating bland mess of Massenet's 'Pleurez mes yeux', and although 'O mio bambino caro' sounded close to self-parody, both this and her Zarzuela number 'The Song of Forgetfulness' were compelling.

At 10pm and with a breeze coming off the Irish Sea, Carmen herself would have been hard put to smoulder. But Julia Migenes managed a very passable imitation of sultriness, as she had done before in 'Summertime' and did again, to the greatest acclaim, in 'Vissi d'arte'. Her Escamillo was Justine Diaz, who strutted the Toreador's stuff as suavely as he crooned 'Some enchanted evening' and Giordano's 'Nemico della Patria'.

This was no place for subtlety. We were there for the thrill of the high C's and any movement less than a full double-arm elevation was unlikely to register. Dmitri Hvorostovsky took a while to appreciate this; he tried a few original touches in Rossini's 'Largo al factotum' and even sang a couple of phrases quietly. But realising that this was falling on stony ground, he cast refinement aside and hammed effectively through Onyegin's final act aria and 'Black Eyes'.

Otherwise it was all down to the three tenors. Not the three, but an estimable trio none the less - Alfredo Kraus gentlemanly and unaffected, Dennis O'Neill in fine enough fettle to triumph to 'Nessun dorma', and Mario Frangoulis more vulnerable but still pleasant to the ear. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus with conductors Robin Stapleton and Julian Reynolds offered staunch support. As principal backers of the event Merseyside Development corporation have good reason to be pleased.

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