No Mikes: Just a Man, His Voice and Fans

09.10.09
Asher Fisch
The New York Times

By Steve Smith

Never let it be said that Andrea Bocelli does things only the easy way. True, this popular Italian tenor became an international superstar with a mix of standard arias, Neapolitan songs and easy-listening adult pop material, lovingly prepared in recording studios and replicated in arena-style concerts with amplification and theatrical special effects. But on several occasions Mr. Bocelli has sought to challenge himself, and his listeners, by stripping back his presentations to the basics: a voice, an orchestra, an audience.

This week Mr. Bocelli is presenting a series of concerts with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, part of a preseason run in which the orchestra will also join an even less likely collaborator, Trey Anastasio of the rock band Phish, on Saturday night. Mr. Bocelli worked with the Philharmonic in 2006, in a four-concert run at Avery Fisher Hall. All those events were sold out, and to judge by the near-capacity crowd at Carnegie on Tuesday night, the current engagement will probably generate similar returns.

For cognoscenti of vocal artistry the risks involved in Mr. Bocelli’s undertakings, both then and now, need no explanation. Substantial technical shortcomings masked by amplification are laid bare in a more conventional classical setting. Mr. Bocelli’s tone can be pleasant, and his pitch is generally secure. But his voice is small and not well supported; his phrasing, wayward and oddly inexpressive.

Hearing Mr. Bocelli work without electronic modification, you are constantly reminded of the labor he is exerting: a far cry from the robust ease heard on his discs. But cognoscenti do not form Mr. Bocelli’s following. Here an audience clearly made up of admirers — listeners apparently sincerely moved by what he does — rewarded each of his efforts with rousing applause.

And why not? Art is dealt no mortal blow by Mr. Bocelli’s offerings or shortcomings. And to any general observations regarding his vocal estate should be added this specific point: Mr. Bocelli sounded considerably better here than he did in his previous Philharmonic encounter, partly because Carnegie Hall sounds warmer and mellower than Avery Fisher Hall does, and partly because Asher Fisch, the conductor, muzzled the orchestra to a sotto voce purr in all but the most climactic moments.

The first half of the concert included credibly sung renditions of “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s “Serse” and an aria from Bach’s Cantata No. 57, presented in Italian as “Lodate Dio” (“Praise God”). Three consecutive “Ave Maria” settings included the familiar Schubert and Bach-Gounod versions. The third, attributed to Caccini but actually composed by Vladimir Vavilov, a Russian guitarist, sounded as if a third-tier Hollywood composer had been instructed by a movie director to “give me something Italian, like that Rachmaninoff guy.”

Mr. Bocelli strained hardest in an aria from Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” and in “Malinconia, ninfa gentile,” an arietta by Bellini. Donaudy’s “Vaghissima sembianza” and two Neapolitan songs called “Serenata,” one apiece from Tosti and Mascagni, went better, effortful peak notes aside.

Mr. Bocelli’s encores were “Amarilli,” a tuneful selection by an authentic Caccini (Giulio, part of a prominent Italian composing family) and “La donna è mobile” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” recognized with a lusty roar by the audience, which clapped along.

Mr. Fisch and the orchestra deserve praise for working effectively within the constraints presented. Without Mr. Bocelli, they offered glowing accounts of two Bach transcriptions by Stokowski, a brash account of the Overture to Bellini’s “Norma” and a ravishing rendition of the Intermezzo from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.”