Sunday, December 4, 2011

Andrea Bocelli Live in Central Park (PBS, 9/15/11)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show was one of those interminable PBS pledge-break things, Andrea Bocelli in Concert in Central Park, a concert which actually took place on September 15 but is being shown several times in PBS’s current pledge period with breaks made to look like it’s happening in real time. The Andrea Bocelli phenomenon baffles me because he’s simply not that great a singer — aside from the two songs (“The Prayer” and “Time to Say Goodbye”) that were actually written for him, virtually every selection on this show, whether operatic or popular, is something I’ve heard sung way better by someone else — and yet I don’t actively hate him the way the reviewers for American Record Guide do. (Whenever any of Mario Lanza’s records get reissued, American Record Guide’s critics can’t resist comparing him to Bocelli and saying that Lanza may have been a pop tenor, but at least he was a pop tenor with a real voice.) I think Bocelli’s voice is essentially comfort music, analogous to comfort food. He’s become a star partly due to a compelling backstory — according to his Wikipedia page, he was born with poor eyesight and became blind at age 12 from an accident playing soccer, and just about everything written about Bocelli mentions his blindness (but then Art Tatum, Willie Johnson, Willie McTell, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and many other musicians have shared Bocelli’s blindness but not his blandness!) — and partly due to a pleasant but unthreatening voice.

I suspect even his clear limitations — for someone billing himself as a tenor it seems he couldn’t sing a squarely placed high “C” on pitch without falsetto to save his life (or regain his sight); every time the music went that high he either dropped into falsetto or emitted a noise that reminded me of Rossini’s famous comment on hearing Rubini, the first tenor to sing high “C” full voice, that the note sounded like a capon being strangled. What I really hadn’t expected was that the first half of his concert, in which he sang opera excerpts, was far better than the second half, in which he sang the pop material I would have assumed he’d be more at home with. He was accompanied by the New York Philharmonic with its regular conductor, Alan Gilbert — who sometimes (especially in “O soave fanciulla” from La Bohème, sung with a quite impressive Black South African soprano whose name, at least to the extent I could make it out from Paula Zahn’s relentlessly chipper narration, was Pretty Yundé; they also sang the “Libiamo” from Traviata together and Yundé, or whatever her name is, showed promise of developing into a first-rate Violetta some day) seemed to be moving the music along as slowly as possible so Bocelli could negotiate it.

The show opened with an instrumental selection — the overture to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino — and then Bocelli came out for “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto (competently sung but without distinction) and then “Di quella pira” from Trovatore (he made most of the notes but without the stirring “ring” that makes this an exciting aria given the right sort of voice — Caruso, Domingo, Pavarotti et al.). Then the first of the evening’s succession of guest stars, baritone Bryn Terfel, came out for a rendition of the “Te Deum” finale of act I of Puccini’s Tosca (hardly in the same league as Ruffo’s or Gobbi’s but still damned good) and Bocelli sang Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Judging from this, and the fact that the best performance in the “pop” set (for which he changed the black suit he’d worn during the opera set into a white one that made him look like a waiter) was “Amazing Grace,” which he sang with real sincerity and (pardon the pun) grace despite a gloppy arrangement featuring the Westminster Symphonic Choir, maybe religious songs are his métier (especially since his best-selling album is called Sacred Songs).

After the “Ave Maria” came a pledge break, and then the most exciting singing of the night: the “Vicino a te” final duet from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, which you’ll recall is set during the French Revolution and ends with the revolutionary poet André Chénier and his aristocratic girlfriend, Maddalena de Coigny, singing an ecstatic love duet while being led away to the guillotine. (They even sing “Vive la morte!” — “Long live death!”) For once everybody — guest soprano Ana Maria Martinez, conductor Gilbert and Bocelli himself — seemed to let their hair down; Gilbert conducted with the kind of mad passion a scene like this needs to work, Martinez was fully the mistress of her role and she pulled Bocelli up to her level and made him sound like a real opera singer for the first and only time all night. Then she left the stage and Bryn Terfel returned for the big male-male duet from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, “Au fond du temple saint,” and then Yondé (or whoever) came out for her two selections, after which Zahn announced the intermission, another pledge break, and then the pop set.

It began with something called “I Walk with You Tonight” by Ennio Morricone (who’s much better known for instrumental film music than as a songwriter) and a version of Riz Ortolani’s “More,” the theme from Mondo Cane, which Bocelli announced that he’d originally wanted to do as a languorous love ballad (which certainly would have been different and might well have worked!), but he’d been talked out of it by Gilbert, who pointed out that the top-selling vocal version in the U.S. had been by Frank Sinatra and therefore they should do it as swing. What followed was neither fish nor fowl, neither credible swing (let’s face it, Bocelli had the New York Philharmonic while Sinatra had Count Basie’s band!) nor good balladry but acceptable on the sheer appeal of the melody and its narrow range, which kept Bocelli in the most comfortable compass of his voice. It didn’t help that on “More” he was joined by David Foster on piano and Chris Botti on trumpet — and while Botti isn’t going to go down in anybody’s  history as one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, he clearly knew a lot more about swinging than either Bocelli or Gilbert did. Then Bocelli sang Domenico Modugno’s “Volare” in yet another pleasant, comfortable version of a song others have sang much better before him, and Céline Dion came out to join him in the big song Foster wrote for him, “The Prayer,” from an otherwise forgotten animated feature called The Quest for Camelot.

 The next piece was a pretty ghastly horror, a vocal version of the slow movement from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez arranged by former New York Philharmonic conductor Lorin Maazel and accompanied by willowy violinist Nicole Benedetti (who was introduced as a Scotswoman despite her Italian-sounding name — as the American Record Guide has noted lately, in order to get a contract as a classical violinist lately you seem to have to be female, and drop-dead gorgeous young female at that, so the record company can put a scantily clad picture of you on the cover and hopefully sell CD’s to people otherwise uninterested in classical music!); Benedetti’s contribution was O.K. but the whole thing was embarrassing not only to anyone who knows the piece in its original form as a concerto for guitar and symphony orchestra but also anyone who’s heard Miles Davis’ riveting version with Gil Evans’ orchestra on the album Sketches of Spain. Then Bocelli did the predictable “O sole mio,” once again perfectly acceptably but hardly in the same league as Caruso.

Ironically, though, the worst selection of the night didn’t involve Bocelli at all: it came about at this stage of the concert and featured Bryn Terfel doing, of all things, “Home on the Range.” Now I’m of the opinion that the version Bing Crosby recorded on September 27, 1933 in Los Angeles with Lennie Hayton’s orchestra is definitive — no one is going to outdo Bing on this one (even Bing himself couldn’t equal it in his remake) — and what’s amazing is that not only does Bing outpoint Terfel on emotion and soul, he outsings him technically as well. Bing’s swooping melisma on the line “the graceful white swan goes gliding along” (his voice really does conjure up the image of a swan gliding along in the sky) is utterly beyond Terfel’s powers, or perhaps beyond his interest because that part of the song was cut from Tefel’s version. It would have helped if Terfel had used Lennie Hayton’s arrangement for the Crosby version instead of the God-awfully pretentious one he did have to sing to, though one thing I have to say for Terfel is at least he pronounced the “t” in “often” (Crosby omitted it). Fortunately, “Amazing Grace,” which contained some of Bocelli’s best singing all night, came next.

Afterwards there was another pledge break and then Tony Bennett came on to join Bocelli on yet another ill-advised duet — the Kander/Ebb “New York, New York” (the song’s official title is “Theme from New York, New York,” probably to distinguish it from the far livelier “New York, New York” that opens the Bernstein/Comden/Green musical On the Town) — in which Bennett, like Botti on “More,” showed up Bocelli’s total lack of syncopation or understanding of jazz rhythm. After that they trotted out Ana Maria Martinez to sing Sarah Brightman’s original part on the star-making hit “Time to Say Goodbye,” and then Bocelli’s final encore returned to the world of opera with “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot, blessedly equipped with the opera’s final chorus (to the same melody) to fill it out better than in performances that just come to a thudding halt at the point in the score when the other characters return to the stage. I hadn’t thought Andrea Bocelli would turn out to be a better opera singer than he is a pop star, but he is; though he’s only a second-rate opera singer and Pavarotti (who apparently gave him some sort of career boost early on) and Domingo needn’t have worried about the competition, at least he has a familiarity with operatic music and a basic understanding of how it’s supposed to go that seems to leave him in the world of pop.

What’s weirdest about Bocelli is that he doesn’t seem to have any soul; everything he sings settles at a level of blandness, as if he really doesn’t care what the words mean or what the composer is attempting to convey through the music; all music seems to mean to him is an excuse to create pretty sounds a lot of people will pay a lot of money — or, as in this free concert, at least sit in the rain for a long time — to hear. I feel about Andrea Bocelli much the way I feel about Andrew Lloyd Webber: I don’t think he’s magnificent and I don’t think he’s single-handedly destroying music, and I can hope his performances of operatic material turn people on to this sort of music and lead them to investigate it with more powerful singers. He’s got a pleasant voice, though one of limited range and carrying power, and as long as he uses it in material he’s comfortable with and doesn’t send him into the danger spots above the staff he’s quite nice to listen to — but comparing him to the great operatic tenors of the past (or even to Lanza, who sang pop material as if it were opera — all too often Bocelli sings opera as if it were pop — and who showed in records like “Serenade” from The Student Prince that he was capable of wrenchingly soulful interpretations way beyond Bocelli’s capabilities) is preposterous.