Las Vegas is so deliciously appropriate for this operatic Rat Pack that it’s downright odd the trio didn’t get its start in a showroom. This is Frank, Dino and Sammy — without the jokes — for a new age: Just as Sinatra and his gang made it OK for adults to enjoy a repertoire of standards as rock ’n’ roll was burgeoning, so, too, have the Three Tenors have shown that operatic voices and some of opera’s repertoire can attract a wide audience at the turn of the boy-band millennium.

Las Vegas is so deliciously appropriate for this operatic Rat Pack that it’s downright odd the trio didn’t get its start in a showroom. This is Frank, Dino and Sammy — without the jokes — for a new age: Just as Sinatra and his gang made it OK for adults to enjoy a repertoire of standards as rock ’n’ roll was burgeoning, so, too, have the Three Tenors have shown that operatic voices and some of opera’s repertoire can attract a wide audience at the turn of the boy-band millennium.

To the degree that the Rat Pack of the late ’50s wasn’t fully appreciated until history’s rear-view mirror was adjusted in the 1990s, so, too, may this be the fate of the Three Tenors.

Collectively, they are among the entertainment world’s most bankable commodities. Hardcore opera buffs may find fault with the trio, but the tenors do cut to the emotional chase with very dramatic arias. They deserve an audience that goes beyond PBS watchers — these are great singers who capably sing with a consistent emotional resonance that’s just not seen very often.

It may take 20 years for a historian to come to understand how important an act the Three Tenors were in the 1990s and 2000. Their competition, when it comes to audience dollars, record sales and concerts, is not the hot young opera stars like Cecilia Bartoli or Denyce Graves nor the singers in their age group. It’s the modern pop stars such as Shania Twain or Tony Bennett or, until a year ago, Whitney Houston.

Yet where the Three Tenors differ from the pop field is in the elevation at which the bar is set. Fortunately, they often reached that lofty altitude Saturday.

The singing heard Saturday in the smallest venue in which the Three Tenors have ever performed was robust and fluid. When Pavarotti sang “La donna e mobile” from “Rigoletto” during the encore, it was so very apparent what was missing from the L.A. Opera staging a few months ago: An intimate, passionate relationship with the song.

And the handful of times Pavarotti swallowed a phrase or two, he found another way to inflate every crowd-pleasing turn; he doesn’t hit the technical brilliance of his 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s work, but he communicates — just as Sinatra did up through 1992 — and that’s what turns on this audience.

Not to suggest that this was a simple re-creation of their much-watched PBS perfs, the singers mixed up the program and avoided much of the material of their albums aside from the sometimes cheesy “West Side Story”/“My Way”/“Moon River” finale and saved the war horses for the encores.

Pavarotti possesses the biggest voice and delivers the showiest tunes, yet he strayed the furthest from the aria-fest when he sang Lucio Dalla’s “Caruso,” the obscenely popular Italian ditty — considered to be the country’s most popular song after “Volare” — with a melody that finds its closest cousin in that of Elton John’s “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.”

He sings it hard, with a rugged authority, yet it seemed so out of place against the straightforward work of Carreras and Domingo that immediately preceded it.

It’s Domingo’s voice, however, that warms the heart most consistently. He turned in the evening’s most stunning vocal turn — on Puccini’s “E lucevan le stelle” from “Tosca” — demonstrating a range built on nuance that isn’t in constant search of fireworks.

Considering the naivete of their audiences — you just can’t find tens of thousands of opera buffs in every American city — it remains surprising that they do no talking, no song introductions or even a hello to give this program a greater emotional tug. It wouldn’t be out of place — this is, after all, a pop culture spectacle.

Which leads to Joni Mitchell’s 30-year-old observation: “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” Simply put, there isn’t another collection of voices that could attract audiences of this size and deliver a show that, for at least 75% of the time, is world-class caliber.

There are no pop musicians brave enough to try this, and the mind really has to reach far and wide to come up with three acts who could make this work. That’s the power of the Three Tenors, whether they’re beautifully singing a trifle of a tune like “Turna a Sorriento” or a signature work such as “Nessun Dorma” (Pavarotti gave it a good shot).

In the program, Three Tenors producer Tibor Rudas writes that he hopes the newcomers will learn to love opera and “make his dream come true” by then venturing into an opera house.

Yet opera house decorum has yet to be translated to the Mandalay Bay staff, as patrons are allowed to come and go as they please, as if this were the upcoming Styx concert rather than a setting for serious music.

Secondly, Mandalay Bay needs to work on the directing behind the video screen shot selection: For all its merits as an intimate venue — imagine half the L.A. Forum — those screens are all that the back of the arena can see.

Saturday’s video shots were often of a person standing or waiting to perform, not the individual singing or the musician soloing, which was as annoying as the constant stream of audience members filling the aisles.

The Three Tenors

Mandalay Bay Events Center, Las Vegas; 10,700 seats; $900 top

Production

Presented by the Rudas Theatrical Organization of Nevada. Performers: Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras. Reviewed April 22, 2000.

Cast

With: the Glendale Symphony Orchestra; conductor, Marco Armiliato.
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