My mother, who raised me on laserdiscs of Joan Sutherland and cassette tapes of Anna Moffo's La Rondine, likes Amici Forever (she also likes Corelli and Nilsson singing Turandot, Kiri Te Kanawa in Faust and the Freni-Pavarotti-Milnes Tosca to her credit). Likewise, when I wrote about Andrea Bocelli last year for a Time Out New York assignment, despite my underlying chagrin, my aunt commented on my subsequent Facebook link: "Bless me, that man is FINE."
For a time, singers like Bocelli reigned in their own kingdoms, kingdoms that consisted of 3,000-seat ampitheaters, PBS specials that run as part of pledge drives, guest spots with the Moody Blues and soundtrack listings on Mandy Moore movies. But then Bocelli started doing operas. In opera houses. And arts organizations in the red realized that here was a crossover artist that could lead to higher seating capacities and increasing revenue. The Metropolitan Opera engaged Bocelli last winter for a Sunday recital that filled the cavernous house. Thursday's New York Philharmonic concert in Central Park with Bocelli may have been free, but that didn't keep Alan Gilbert and his musicians getting busy to a somewhat soggy audience of nearly 60,000.
The numbers don't lie, but it also doesn't mean that they have to agree with the critics. The New York Times's Zachary Woolfe wrote of Bocelli's Met recital that the "crowd stayed mostly subdued, hearing none of the pumped-up volume it expected from the recordings nor the vocal glamour of a Three Tenors show. Ringing Pavarotti-style high notes are difficult for Mr. Bocelli; his effect of choice is extended falsetto tones, with which he dramatically ended several numbers." He also questioned the programming choice of the recital, which was devoid of Bocelli's signature Italian heart-tugging numbers, which also did the singer a disservice. (Woolfe: "In Mr. Bocelli’s conception of the canon there is little audible difference between Handel and Gounod, and little urgency to either.")
Apparently, though admittedly I was not among the 60,000 last night, Bocelli fared better with the Phil with arias like "La donna è mobile" and the swinging "Volare," not to mention duets with guests like Celine Dion and Tony Bennett. However, Gilbert & Co. took some heat not only for replacing their normal summer parks concerts with this—and a free concert of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 last week. "Perhaps I should have mentioned this first thing, but the orchestra’s participation was not a major part of the billing," writes Anthony Tommasini, further noting that "the orchestra, especially Mr. Gilbert, came across as artistically diminished."
Bocelli is in a class of his own, but there are a great deal of classical musicians who trade up nuance for bombast, who trade in name value rather than critical acclaim. Even Pavarotti transcended the opera house and made his way into the CD collections of hundreds of non-opera-goers. Plácido Domingo has collaborated with Josh Groban, Vanessa Williams, Britain's soubrette answer to Bocelli Katherine Jenkins, and Bocelli himself on a John Paul II tribute album tailor-made for the Susan Boyle set.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky's Russo-pop show resulted in all of Brighton Beach filling Radio City Music Hall (and Tommasini walking out at intermission). And Rolando Villazón (along with his one-time mane that was half Gustavo Dudamel, half Krusty the Klown) joined forces with Jenkins for a show that was all about merging from pop star to opera star.
All of this brings up a chewy, and at times tender, topic: For whom are these crossover artists? While there are people like my mother and her sister who appreciate both a Bocelli concert on Channel 13 or a well-worn CD of Opera Babes (and, to be honest, the latter has a great recording of Aida's Triumphant March that is great for the final push in a long run), they came to those artists from opera, not the other way around. How many of the 60,000 in Central Park last night are going to subsequently buy season tickets?
And are singers like Bocelli even supposed to be gateways from pop to opera? Or is that just as condescending as the singer's adviser, Eugene Kohn, denying Met audiences the Italian pop songs they crave? Is it really so wrong to want to hear Bocelli sing the Top 10 Verdi and "O Sole Mio" as opposed to "Ombra mai fu" and works of Wagner? He's not for everyone (certainly not for me), but his wide appeal is a testament to his charisma, a charisma that, to a critical ear, makes up for faults in competency and consistency. And who are we to judge?
Where, in the grand scheme of things, do you think singers like Andrea Bocelli fit in? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.