Cher Public

No way, Don José

Andrea-Bocelli-MuppetsAndrea Bocelli is a pop singer, and a wildly successful one at that. So why does he feel compelled to pretend to be a dramatic tenor?

No one can deny that his voice is actually quite attractive, and that his high notes are fairly impressive. He is also generally on pitch and accurate. However, and this is one of the largest howevers I have ever stated, there are a myriad of problems with his approach: he croons and scoops, his sustained tones are largely shaky, there is little attempt at legato, color or phrasing and he has almost no ability to project character onto to the music.

You could say that his voice lacks training. You could also say that being stabbed in the gut stings a bit. To anyone with any sort of ear for technique or actual musical skill, it is simply unbelievable that he can get away with singing like this in a professional capacity.

In other words, he is a completely acceptable Don José for this day and age.

Joking: in fact,  Bocelli’s newest vanity-project opera recording of Carmen shows him to completely unacceptable in the role. This is of course, no surprise. But, having never heard him in actual operatic action before, I didn’t expect how hugely deficient he is stylistically, dramatically and technically as an opera singer. No matter how high the engineers crank up the volume, it is a tiny, shaky voice without support.

What really made me want to use my stereo system as a projectile missile was his completely non-existing acting. Don José may be the most anguished and impassioned tenor role in the French repertoire (we’re not even going to talk about his French, by the way), and Bocelli sings it without a shred of dramatic interpretation. In the final scene, he doesn’t even sound mildly peeved. He might as well be singing about what he had for breakfast. Probably so he doesn’t have to act, all dialogue is cut to the absolute minimum, for which one can only be thankful.

His non-performance in the role is even more frustrating because with a different tenor in his place, this would actually be a fairly respectable recording of Bizet’s greatest opera. Myun-Whun Chung is on the podium and his energetic reading is an exciting one. He keeps things lively (the overture fairly explodes into being), and shapes the more lyrical passages with flair. Occasionally he goes to the extreme (the chorus before the entrance of the cigarette girls in act one is so slow as to appear almost frozen), but it’s an intelligent extreme. Under his baton, the Chorus and Orchestra of Radio France have an extremely happy day.

The opera is called Carmen and not Don José, and with such a deficient partner, the generally underrated Marina Domashenko stands out even stronger than she would normally. Her voice, on the heavy side for the part, isn’t the freest; like other Russian mezzos, she can be accused of having a thick, Slavic tone, and when the music moves fast she is often ungainly. However, she has made a career out of the role, and with good reason. Tremendously seductive and very fiery, she pumps every inch of the text with meaning. She is at her best in “Les tringles des sistres tintaient” and the card aria. The first of these is enchantingly caught up in the music; the second is a truly gripping interior monologue. She is not, perhaps not a totally ideal Carmen, but she is definitely worth a listen.

After Chung and Domashenko (thankfully the two most important elements in the performance) are discussed, the positives largely fade away. The largely Francophone supporting cast is uneven, ranging from excellent (Thierry Félix as Zuniga and Olivier Lallouette and Alain Gabriel as the smugglers), to subpar (Magali Léger as Frasquita) to terrible (Jean-Luc Ballestra, the worst Moralès I have ever heard).

Eva Mei is also not ideal as Micaëla. Her execution of both the French language is shaky, and her high soprano, which I’ve enjoyed in several bel canto roles, made me yearn for a slightly weightier sound. That being said, her phrasing of the aria is very well done, and she presents a fine contrast with Domashenko in act three, where she sounds convincingly young and out of her depth.

The most baffling name on the cast list is that of Bryn Terfel, who I assume needed to pay off a sizable gambling debt. He is not heard at his best. His Escamillo is exciting, intelligent and seductive, and the sound is as impressive as always, but he seems uncomfortable in “Votre toast,” which appears to lie awkwardly for him. The duet with Don José sounds be easier for him, but his voice is audibly pulled back and electronically quieted as to not completely overpower Bocelli. The role does not seem, on the whole, to suit him, but it is at least interesting.

Unfortunately, however interesting, well sung or well played the rest of the recording is, Bocelli’s mere presence knocks this Carmen completely out of the running as a worthy representation of the opera. I’ve enjoyed Bocelli in the right medium, such as Italian pop songs. But his presence here among this group of actual musicians, even some who are miscast or not at their best, can be likened to a duck attempting to be a canary. It just doesn’t work. Stick to being a duck, Andrea, it’s what you’re best at.

  • tiger1dk

    I heard some of Bocelli’s singing at some concert last year where Domingo was a guest -- and I was somewhat surprised that Bocelli’s voice was much less beautiful than I would have expected -- it was actually a kind of unpleasant sound. Now, I have never considered Bocelli an opera singer -- but found him quite good in the Italian pop repertoire -- but even in that he was lacking.
    I cannot imagine him as Don Jose -- and even less as Andrea Chenier -- and I wonder if anyone has heard this latter recording?

  • Bluessweet

    We’d better cut this out. (Plays creepy music) “The Others” will start to complain again.

    • Harry

      Bluessweet; Not to worry about ‘the Others’ . Come to think of it, what is going on besides the hype :is record companies and managements playing on extra musical considerations to push and promote certain people ahead of others more talented? Recording company ‘spin’ has got ahead of sheer critical judgment. As a result, we see the consequences it has caused. That is, failing to act and use the capabilities of ALL THE OTHER- MORE TALENTED on offer, without back door or side deals, or favor to anyone. In fact it amounts to a form of insidious reverse discrimination of one form or another.

      Best thing for talent, passed over …turn up on the record company’s door step, making themselves out as some invalid with an entourage of ‘helpers’. The promotion department will go into an instant orgasm of activity as they snort a line of coke and predict great things falling into their lap. Long term contracts will come flying, with open invitations to record anything no matter how grand and financially stupid. Any losses with CD promotion will be subsided by and more than ‘made up for’ by the record company having a financial finger in the pie through their Concert Services and TV Media Department of the Corporation.

      A note to such ingenious clever wise talent :make sure with those public appearances, you keep up that initial act you pulled, to get in the Company’s front door. The public will love you for it. They love ‘hard luck’ stories, fuck your talent and ability . It is about making money, right?

  • wladek

    CruzSF -- for your enlightenment ,and
    believe me it is a formidable task . I
    often ask the man with the eye patch
    “why me ” and get some mumbled answer that to have attended Lucia more than once calls for some
    form of atonement before one is allowed to cross that rainbow bridge .

  • This is silly -- I heard Bocelli live and he didn’t pass the third orchestra row. It’s a meage instrument, badly supported. He could have been a passable tenore di grazia with proper schooling. Don Jose is a joke, as are all the rest of them. Chung had once been a good opera conductor but things changed -- this new Carmen is way too fast and brittle. Shame about Domaschenko, she deserves better surroundings.

    • laragazza

      So why does he feel compelled to pretend to be a dramatic tenor?
      Has anyone ever met a tenor who didn’t secretly or overtly long to be a dramatic tenor, even to the point of singing the repertoire if it meant risking their vocal health and longevity? Incidentally, methinks Signore Bocelli has long held the dream, having been gifted with several vocal lessons from the master, Franco Corelli, way back in the beginning of his (Bocelli’s) career.

      • bassoprofundo

        if I didn’t know what this thread was about I would have guessed from your reply that you were referring to Jonas Kaufmann.

        • wladek

          bassoprofundo -- you had better head for the hills after that comment! The high C or whatever comes close to it gang will be after you .

  • Tim

    As we are discussing a tenor singing roles he is not entirely suited for has any one of our euro-spies picked up on how Rolando did tonight in the Zurich Traviata? Whatever the result I hope he can come to some intelligent understanding of what he should be singing and just do that and be happy.


    • CruzSF

      Which role was Villazon supposed to sing?

      • peter

        Verdi’s Otello. :-)

        • CruzSF

          He’s still got it, then. I was expecting Head Waiter at Flora’s party.

  • peter

    Or busboy at Max’s Opera Plaza.

    • CruzSF

      Ho ho! I didn’t expect THAT one. Good show.

  • peter

    Actually it looks like he singing Alfredo in Zurich but he’s got a pretty full schedule:

    • CruzSF

      There’s a lot of optimism in that schedule. But I notice that he’s directing a Werther in January. Maybe he recognizes the different path his career needs to take: remaining involved in opera with longer breaks between singing engagements.

      • Tim

        There are a few clips over at Opera Chic and to my untrained ears he just doesn’t sound right; as if he is trying to survive more than anything else. He still seems hyper with the waving arms etc. Also, correct me if I’m wrong but the Zurich house is on the small cozy side compared to the Met. Would love to hear your take on all of this. Thank God we still have Joseph, Piotr, and Jonas and that skinny kid from Peru.


        • Donna Carlo

          Hi Tim: Like yours, my ears are untrained, so (of course?) they heard something different. After the Handel debacle, I expected another excruciating parody, but instead I found a fully convincing rendition of an aria so familiar that I hardly pay attention to it anymore, and here I was mesmerized. What struck me most was the expressive legato and a dynamic that varied to shade each phrase with meaning. I didn’t see or hear a struggle, and to me the acting didn’t seem hyperkinetic, given that Alfredo is singing about his “bubbling spirits.”

          I’m led back to the start of this post and reactions to Bocelli, with which I agree: what strikes me most about his attempts at opera is his lack of the dynamic control and interpretative power that I hear in Villazon, even in what may be parlous shape--with B, everything sounds exactly, boringly the same.

          Thank you so much for the clip tip, Tim: it roused me from my normal morning torpor, and now I’m determined to make space in my day to watch the Netrebko/Villazon DVD and compare his pre- and post-crisis voice and interpretation. Then on to La Fabs and Alagna for further comparison. What Joy!

          There are so many trained ears on Parterre, and I, like you, hope that we can get some more perceptive takes. Though in the end, we hear what we hear, n’est-ce pas?

        • manou

          Tim and Donna C -- I am pretty certain that he adds an extraneous “Dal di’ che disse…” at the end. It seems to me that this is a very uneven performance (“Un di’ felice” is much worse), but undoubtedly better than the Handel effort. There is still this reckless quality which used to serve him well once, but is now the equivalent of dicing with danger…and not always winning.

        • Donna Carlo

          Chère Manou, je vous remercie de m’avoir prêter votre oreille, qui est sans doute plus éduquée que la mienne. Il se peut que ce soit exactement ce “danger” dont vous parlez qui m’inspire tant d’estime!

          BTW, you amazed me with “Dairy Queen.” I thought the franchise was confined to the US. How the spider’s tentacles (Block that Metaphor!) reach out to other shores. Ahimé.

        • manou

          Chère Donna -- il n’y pas pas le moindre Dairy Queen de ce côté de l’Atlantique. Mais j’ai toujours les oreilles qui traînent…que ce soir du côté de l’opéra ou du côté des repères folkoriques!