The return of the three amigos

Black tie sat alongside black bin-liner: the Three Tenors played to a wet Wembley audience and found they could do no wrong. By Jasper Rees
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The Independent Culture
Unlucky Luciano. Every time Pavarotti does an outdoor gig in London, the heavens open. It's as if Somebody up there doesn't like him, and wants to pour cold water on such hot-headed worship of a secular Buddha. At least rain is democratic: Pavarotti in the Park drenched plebeians and royalty alike; this time round, the punters who forked out to sit ringside were the worst hit. Saturday evening was one of those rare occasions when black tie and black bin-liner were seen in sartorial proximity. Others customised shopping bags into protective headgear. Mission: impermeable. The night was crying out for Sir Cliff.

The first spits came when the Three Tenors kicked into their unique brand of Berlitz English. The fatalistic view is that this was a simple case of cause and effect. They were even singing "Because" at the time. The spattering escalated and the attention of those al fresco was less than respectfully silent. The Neapolitan songs which closed the first medley got a noticeably bigger ovation from the cheap seats (pounds 200, for the record), while down on the pitch umbrellas went up along with the cries from the suddenly unsighted for them to come down.

So when Placido Domingo swooned magnificently through "E lucevan le stelle", it was very much a case of fat chance. As insurance against the chance of seeing real stars, one side of the stadium was draped in a huge black sheet speckled in light bulbs that mimicked the firmament. The stage itself was an elegant colonnade of white pillars and palm fronds fanning out to video screens the size of squash courts. Lookwise, it was somewhere between St Peter's Square and a top-dollar bordello - the marriage of God and Mammon: just right for stadium opera.

On a high platform upstage a male choir hired to sing in the interval passed the rest of the evening as cheerleaders, frantically applauding as the big three made their exits and entrances. They did their most sterling work putting their hands together for Jose Carreras. From the size of his ovations it was evident that of the Three Tenors, he was the smallest draw. He edged on first and before delivering himself of "Il Lamento di Federico" you saw him look nervily up at the sky, and gulp.

Pavarotti, who strode on next with his arms flung wide and a showman's smile visible from the corner flags, eats this size of audience for breakfast. After 200,000 in Hyde Park, 50,000 at Wembley is his equivalent of a small club date. The murmurs that vocally he's had it, that he's only in on this junket because he's down to his last few bilione, are completely lost on this crowd. It was his rendering of "Nessun Dorma" - given the house-down treatment once more - that snagged a sizeable percentage of this audience, and suggested the weird congruity between opera and football. You could almost hear the chant go up: he's fat, he's round, he's headlining at a football ground.

In this venue, the analogy becomes irresistible. Despite overbearing expectation, the first half somehow failed to ignite, but after half time the place exploded into life. A bit like England vs Scotland, seen here three weeks before. As soloists they all reserved their big moments till last: Carreras's "Un di all'azzurro spazio" (again, fat chance), Domingo and Pavarotti their star turns from Puccini.

And then, with the rain long gone, came the second medley of crowd-pleasers. "Maria" and "Tonight" from West Side Story, "Moon River", Spanish ditties "Ciolito Lindo" and "Carminito", "Matlinata" and, just to complete the collection of meteorologically inappropriate songs, "O Sole Mio". Pavarotti read this last from the music sheet, presumably to make sure he didn't mention ice-cream by mistake. It was all so crowd-pleasing that they did it again, and the performers puffed chests and pumped paws and looked much less like Three Tenors than Three Amigos.

The Mastercard airship floated overhead all night, a tidy reminder that this whole operation is fuelled by hot air and plastic. The high-art lobby scoffs and carps, but the performers bring opera to the mob with at least the veneer of real conviction. The truth is that populism creates more winners than losers. And however wet, scarcely a soul left early, doubtless mindful of an adage familiar to this hallowed venue: it's not over till the fat lads sing.