The year was 1996. We were all a little younger, a little more naïve; it was in the aftermath of the Three Tenors franchise. You know—opera classics for all, bringing some of the biggest personalities in opera to the oh-is-that-Mozart class. And there was a little bit of drama (Pavarotti running off with his assistant, etc). And then, without much fanfare, a little concert snuck onto PBS. It was of a blind tenor, not quite up to the level of the Big Three, but charming and bashful. His voice was thinner than those other tenors. But the biggest surprise was he sang pop songs. Not traditional pop songs, but huge-hearted, unabashedly emotional arias that married opera’s love of soaring melody with easy listening percussion and soft-swelling electric guitars. The prototype was, and still is, “Con Te Partiro”, recorded with Sarah Brightman as “Time To Say Goodbye”—must have been the soundtrack to the closing credits of a thousand sporting competitions since.
Ten years later, and Bocelli’s found some real opportunist of a manager, I guess. The artist’s discography’s a mix of attempts to justify a real reputation as an opera performer and cash-ins to this new “popera” genre. So we’ve had a couple albums of arias from operas, some popular classical compilations, and a number of major works: La Boheme, Werther, Il Trovatore, Tosca, and Verdi’s Requiem. These are big works, but I doubt any serious classical critic (which I certainly am not) would count them as definitive interpretations. No matter; Bocelli’s appeal isn’t dependent on his reputation as a classical performer. Rather, his place in the record collections of middle-class moms and dads is enhanced by the perception that he’s actually serious about this aspect of his music. But if you bought Romanza (1996), and Sogno (1999), and somehow forgot to get excited about the four other pop albums Bocelli’s released, you can be forgiven—the criticism that all these albums sound the same may hold some truth, after all.
But really, Bocelli’s story over the past ten years has been one of ever widening circles of popularity. Just this year, he’s appeared on American Idol, performed at the NBA All-Star weekend, and at the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics. No doubt all of these helped boost the sales of his latest CD, Amore. Andrea Bocelli: Under the Desert Sky is a CD/DVD in-time-for the holidays release: the CD, of live material and a few unreleased songs, and the DVD of his performance at Lake Las Vegas Resort from December 2005, later screened as a PBS special this year. The DVD’s the main piece in this release, with its big-stage, full orchestra/full band splendor, and Bocelli’s abashed charm. His stage presence is understated, as if he’s continually embarrassed by all the attention. But everything else about this slick production is utterly professional—from the crisp, multi-angled slow zooms (staple of classical concert footage) to the slowly color-shifting lights, to the pretty, faux-Italian backdrop of Lake Las Vegas. The whole thing rings a bit false, unfortunately, since it’s an exclusive-type audience of trophy wives and sedate applause for Bocelli’s “first pop concert.”
The material on show, both in the concert and on the accompanying CD, is mostly drawn from Amore. The CD, at least, adds little to that release; from the easy-listening Spanish guitar of “Besame Mucho” to the shopping-muzak “Cuando Me Enamoro”, the live cuts are too slickly engineered to be much of a twist on the formula. Unreleased songs, like “September Morn”, show the singer abusing his voice, throwing it into and out of the notes in an effort at cavalier pop, coming off like a Broadway musical. As Bocelli’s profile in the US has grown, so have the caliber of his guest vocalists. Here, we see spots by American Idolist Katharine McPhee, Broadway’s Heather Headley and Stevie Wonder. That duet, “Canzoni Stonate”, is a basic replica of what appeared on Amore; the song recalls the old standard “Fly Me to the Moon”, but the marriage of Wonder and Bocelli is miscalculated. The two voices don’t blend, they highlight each’s shortfalls—Bocelli’s too stiff, too Classical for jazz; Wonder’s without the depth and range of his partner. If we could have seen Wonder in concert, perhaps it would have provided the Botoxed audience the jolt of excitement needed to rouse them out of their rapt silence. The low point is the schmaltzy version of the Elvis classic “Can’t Help Falling in Love”: on record, McPhee’s shrill Celine Dion impersonations wallow over-sentimentally; live, the recognizable opening’s met with a spasm of applause. Even some mouth-alongs going on there, which, in any context, are embarrassing.
Look, Andrea Bocelli: Under the Desert Sky is going to be sitting there at the front of every Walmart CD section and HMV “Holiday Gift Ideas” display. You’ll be looking for a gift for your parents, or maybe your boyfriend’s parents, or your in-laws. You’ll think there couldn’t be an easier option. But, just this year, why not take a chance? People’s tastes aren’t all that different. Maybe that Feist CD or new Regina Spektor album you like so much will be just the revelation to get those Boomers excited about some new music again.