Bye Bye Verdi

Follow the lieder: Bocelli may be a global singing star (pictured, in 1999), but opera's not his forte.Photo: Eric Charbonneau/Corbis Outline

Passions run high in cyberspace’s opera chat rooms these days. Just mention the name Andrea Bocelli and see what happens. To his fans, the adorably boyish, blind Italian tenor with the fuzzy five o’clock shadow can do no wrong, whether he’s crooning pop or Puccini. To his detractors, Bocelli is an overhyped vocal fraud who trades on his good looks and disability to charm an audience composed mostly of susceptible middle-aged women who miss Liberace.

The fights have become more heated lately, ever since Bocelli invaded the sacrosanct world of opera with his controversial stage debut as Massenet’s Werther last year in Detroit. That apparently was just the beginning. A compact disc of Verdi arias with Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic has just hit the stores, a complete recording of La Bohème is due in November, a Verdi Requiem is in the works, and future appearances in opera are under discussion. Can a Met debut be far off?

The all-Verdi disc (Philips 289 464 600-2) is unlikely to change polarized minds one way or another, but let’s make a desperate attempt to be objective. Whatever else Bocelli may be, he is no freak crossover celebrity about to sink back into well-deserved obscurity, as did, to take one famous recent example, the technically and mentally challenged pianist David Helfgott, following the release of the film Shine in 1996. No matter how negatively one may respond to its contents, this package has too many commercial attractions, and the vocal presence, however limited, is very real. The moneymaking machine driving this career is also huge, well oiled, and squarely aimed at America, where such Barnum-like cultural phenomena have always flourished. Beyond that, Bocelli has even found a few highly respected music critics willing to take his classical and opera ambitions very seriously indeed.

So what have we actually got here? The voice itself – typically Italian with its open-throated immediacy and bright, metallic ping – is not as conventionally beautiful as, say, Pavarotti’s fuller and richer tenor, but the reedy timbre has its own distinctive appeal when heard in an appropriate context. However, Verdi, I’m sorry to say, is not it. The voice is several sizes too small for most of the music sung here, and while tricks of engineering can boost the volume, they cannot inflate the natural size and amplitude of vocal sound to sustain the heroic arias of Radamès, Ernani, and Don Alvaro. The top of the voice is solid and secure up to the high C, but Bocelli runs into basic technical problems trying to support his middle register, where he often seems to struggle with muscle fatigue. That also prevents him from coloring his tone or giving phrases a musical shape, and most everything emerges sounding pretty much the same. Yes, Italian tenors of this sort have sung Verdi in the past, but their roles were walk-ons like Borsa, Gastone, and Ruiz, not the Duke of Mantua, Alfredo, and Manrico. I suppose it is noble of Bocelli to pursue his operatic dreams when he could easily continue making millions by sticking with the pop repertory, but in Verdi he simply can’t deliver the goods.

All this is unlikely to deter the faithful, who derive pleasure from Bocelli even when he is audibly overreaching himself – this sort of devotion is more typically enjoyed by great opera singers at the end of their careers, when fans tend to hear the voice that once was rather than the voice as it is today – and that, no doubt, only adds to Bocelli’s alluring vulnerability. About the only enjoyment I got from this recital was hearing a tenor respond so naturally to the verbal music of his own language, a treat in these days of international opera when most singers haven’t a clue as to what the words they faithfully parrot may actually mean. I wish it were possible to put forward a more legitimate Italian-style tenor with sufficient voice, artistry, and commercial clout to justify a disc of this sort. Richard Leech? Marcello Giordani? Jerry Hadley? Marcelo Alvarez? No, thank you – times are tough enough for Verdi. It has taken a century for the Italian tenor to decline and fall since the days of the great Caruso, and it seems to me that with Bocelli we have finally reached rock bottom.

To expand cautiously on a delicate topic: It may be useful to contrast Bocelli with another disabled singer whose career is growing fast, the German baritone Thomas Quasthoff. A “Thalidomide baby,” Quasthoff has had even greater physical limitations to overcome on his way up, and he lacks Bocelli’s sex appeal. Even if he did have the tenor’s matinee-idol looks, this serious-minded artist would be unlikely to cultivate easy-listening crossover audiences, and so far he has earned his popularity on the concert stage and as a lieder recitalist. New York has responded with special warmth to Quasthoff in both capacities recently – for many, his solo recital at Mostly Mozart last summer was one of the festival’s high points.

And little wonder: This is a real voice, classically trained and responsive to most everything its owner asks it to do. On the baritone’s latest disc, his first for Deutsche Grammophon (289 463 183-2), he juxtaposes songs by Brahms and Liszt. The latter’s three Petrarch sonnets demonstrate the enormous range Quasthoff commands, from sonorous bass tones to easy, spinning top notes a tenor might envy.

Overall, it’s a roomy, flexible sound with a distinctively textured surface, a roughish nap that may not be to all tastes but one that permits a wealth of expressive gestures and nuances. He is equally impressive with Brahms’s more contained songs, the three sets published as Op. 32, 72, and 94 – song cycles in all but name, and for once perceived and performed as such. Indeed, the focus, concentration, and sheer creative energy that motivate all these interpretations are qualities not many singers cultivate these days.

When Quasthoff first appeared on the scene about ten years ago, it looked as though opera would be out of the question, even for a baritone of such quality and dynamic presence. Luckily, that attitude is now being reconsidered and the search for suitable roles has begun. I would immediately nominate Amfortas in Parsifal, a part Wagner might have written with this voice in mind. Come to think of it, the same composer’s Flying Dutchman and Wolfram in Tannhäuser are also not only possible but intriguingly feasible. And if Quasthoff chooses to test himself in opera, it could surely happen. For a vocal talent this big and a musical spirit this determined, a physical disability seems less like an obstacle than like an inspiration to excel.

Bye Bye Verdi