There is a paradox at the very heart of Andrea Bocelli’s concert appearances at Taipei Arena (台北小巨蛋) on Tuesday and Wednesday next week.
Bocelli is an enormous international celebrity capable of effortlessly filling stadiums of almost any size. Next week he will perform twice in the relatively small Taipei Arena (capacity 11,000) with the backing of a choir and orchestra, plus two supporting female singers, Italian classical soprano Elena Rossi and New Zealand’s pop-classical sensation Hayley Westenra. Both shows are highly likely to be booked out. But tidal swirls can be detected beneath the surface, and they’re most readily apparent when you ask yourself what it is that Bocelli is really trying to achieve.
When the program for the two events was unveiled, it was stated that Bocelli would be singing only Italian material. One section of the concert program would feature excerpts from Italian operas, the other half traditional Italian songs and ballads. The reason for this, it was stated in another comment, was that Bocelli wanted to promote Italian opera as a whole, something that had inspired him in his youth and still was close to his heart.
On the other hand, Bocelli’s success has come precisely from his having pursued a markedly crossover path. He would never have achieved what he has if he had confined himself to actually singing Italian operas. He wishes to bring Italian opera to the young, yes, and on an international stage. But he has opted to do so by presenting already well-known highlights and, more importantly, appearing alongside popular artists who have never made any claim to being serious operatic practitioners, such as Westenra.
The crux of the matter is perfectly illustrated by his having selected not one but two female vocalists as co-performers. Westenra is one, but the other is a purely classical operatic soprano — Rossi. She’s still young, but has nevertheless already carved out for herself a modest career singing important operatic roles in southern European opera houses. In addition she has produced four CDs, all without any trace of crossover.
Rossi, you feel, is what Bocelli really needs. Westenra is crucial for his project of reaching out to the masses, but to present genuine operatic duets he desperately needs an operatic professional as partner, and this is surely what Rossi is scheduled to be in Taipei.
Take, for example, the duet from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly scheduled as part of the program. In it, the superficial American Pinkerton urges the 15-year-old Butterfly from the night garden and into the bedroom. He’s eager for sex, however beautiful the music, whereas she wants a lifelong love. Of course he gets what he wants, but soon thereafter he leaves her forever. It’s one of the great duets in Italian opera, but significantly it’s Rossi who will accompany Bocelli in it rather than Westenra — despite the fact that she included a version of Butterfly’s solo aria Un Bel di Vedremo (“One fine day we will see”) on her 2007 album Celtic Treasure.
This impression is reinforced by Bocelli’s failure to make much of an impression recording pure opera himself. Almost all critics agreed that his Cavaradossi in Tosca (2003) was extraordinarily lackluster. The reason, I think, is clear.
Bocelli’s voice has time and again been compared to an angel’s. His DVD Sacred Arias (2000), under the baton of Myung-Whun Chung, was probably his most impressive product in non-crossover music, and indeed is one of the most successful classical DVDs of all time. Over and over his work has been called either evocative of paradise or of pure love. This current tour is titled, significantly, The Wonder of True Love Tour. Bocelli, in other words, is great on purity, lasting happiness and the prospect of eternal bliss, but when it comes to conflict — the very essence of almost any opera — he’s simply too angelic.