OPERA / Distant Mario brothers: Jose Carreras, Royal Albert Hall

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The Independent Culture
Mario Lanza, the Italian-American tenor who died in 1959 aged 39, had what it takes to be an Elvis Presley: an expressive voice, good looks that even in his prime hinted at the puffiness that would overtake him, and problems with drink and drugs that probably led to his early death. He even recorded for the same company - RCA - as Presley. Yet, despite a handful of million-sellers, Lanza never generated a Presley-style cult. As far as I know, no one has ever claimed a posthumous sighting and no one has recorded a song called 'There's a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Thinks He's Mario'.

Yet 35 years after his death, it seems, Mario's moment has come. A compilation of his hits - The Ultimate Collection - is high in the pop charts; and Jose Carreras has been touring his Tribute to Mario Lanza, which last Tuesday reached the Royal Albert Hall to be broadcast live by Radio 2.

Carreras claims that seeing Lanza in The Great Caruso, the 1951 Hollywood film, made him want to be an opera singer, and his show is his way of repaying the debt. There's no reason to doubt his motives, yet it seems odd for one of the great tenors of our day to pay tribute to a singer who was, technically, inferior. Or perhaps that's the wrong way to put it: Carreras sings opera better than Lanza did but Lanza sang popular songs better than Carreras ever will.

As a result the Albert Hall show was a mismatch, although the audience gave Carreras a standing ovation and called him back for a number of encores. Carreras has made frequent forays into Broadway territory, but his voice always seems too big, his phrasing too stiff, his pronunciation too alien. This isn't a question of laughing at a funny foreign accent. In the wrong hands, songs like 'Because You're Mine' become ponderous. When the word 'melody' emerges as 'malady', or when, in 'Serenade', 'blossoms on the bough' becomes 'blossoms on the bar', the effect is not only mildly amusing, but seriously damaging.

It doesn't help that Carreras lacks the ebullient stage presence of a Pavarotti. He stands motionless, the arms and hands restricted to stereotypical gestures, and he says not a word to the audience until the middle of his encores.

There were signs that the material encouraged him to relax his vocal discipline: aspirates appeared and the last line of 'Because You're Mine' was disfigured by a final, triumphant yet vulgar breath, so it became 'because you're minor'. Carreras would never play such tricks in the opera house; to do so here suggested an element of condescension.

Not that everything disappointed. The discreet amplification gave the voice mighty presence, so that his exquisite crescendo and diminuendo became even more delightful. The further the songs moved from Broadway, the closer they got to Carreras's home pitch, Italian bel canto. I'm not sure what connection Mario Lanza has with the aria 'Una furtiva lagrima' from Donizetti's opera L'Elisir d'amore, but this was Carreras at his best, the line perfectly shaped, the volume control minutely focused.

Artistry such as Carreras's merits generous applause, but on this occasion, I found myself unable to share the wild enthusiasm.