Sogno and Voice of an Angel
Americans, by and large, are not an opera-loving people. It hardly matters whether it’s Verdi or Wagner, Mozart or Mascagni — as far as the average joe is concerned, it’s all over when the fat lady sings. Yet the most popular artist on the Billboard album charts is Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. Right now he has three albums in the top 200: 1997’s ”Romanza,” 1998’s ”Aria: The Opera Album” — and ”Sogno,” which, fueled by his performances at the Oscars and Grammys, recently debuted at an astounding No. 4.
Nonetheless, legitimacy is an issue for Bocelli. Though he’s recorded arias by Verdi, Puccini, and the like, he is hardly an opera star. In fact, to the opera establishment, he’s just a pop singer with a host of pretensions but not a particularly good voice.
There’s some truth in that assessment. Although Bocelli is capable of luscious bel canto subtlety and muscular high notes, he’s equally prone to artless phrasing and a muffled tone. ”Canto Della Terra,” the first selection from ”Sogno,” is a case in point. It opens quietly, then erupts dramatically as the orchestra swells and his voice sweeps upward. Bocelli is impressive when singing at full power but he seems lost when it comes time to underplay the melody, lacking the control necessary to give the soft notes the beautiful tone and bell-like clarity of the climaxes.
His sound and strengths work a lot better on ”The Prayer,” his duet with Celine Dion from the ”Quest for Camelot” soundtrack. It isn’t just that the song’s bite-size phrases and gently rising melody are significantly easier to handle than the average aria, it also helps that Bocelli takes his cues from Dion, matching her pace and only pouring on the power for the big climaxes.
But the best thing about ”The Prayer” is that it seems divinely inspired, taking the thrilling aspects of the operatic vocabulary — the full-throated high notes, the intertwining vocal lines — and translating them into the pop vernacular. Think of it as Puccini for Dummies, and you’ll have a sense of why it’s so appealing to pop fans (and so infuriating to opera snobs). Bocelli isn’t the fourth tenor, destined to sing alongside Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carerras; at best, he’s the new Mario Lanza, a tenor for listeners who wouldn’t dare spend a night at the opera.