Andrea Bocelli in Vienna

24 September 2007

by Robert Schlesinger

Since I know what I'm going to say else in this review, let me start by saying something nice: Andrea Bocelli has a really beautiful timbre, and a timbre perfectly suited for singing classical music; this is true not only on record, but also live in concert, as his recital of Italian lieder at the Wiener Staatsoper has proven.

The Staatsoper found a – rather surprising – solution for having him sing without a microphone: he didn't perform on stage, but on a podium that covered the orchestra pit for that evening. Whoever has heard a singer doing his work in the orchestra pit will know what that means: acoustics are incomparably better there than from the stage, and operatic voices display considerably more power from the pit. Yes, even Bocelli could be heard that way. But though I knew his voice to be small, I'd never have guessed it's that small; even from the extraordinarily favourable position where he was standing and singing, the sound was weak beyond imagination.

The program of the concert was decidedly serious, with concert arias and songs by Caccini ("Amarilli", of course), Pergolesi, Giordani, Bellini, Verdi, Tosti, in chronological order; no item ventured further into pop music than "Musica proibita". Bocelli, thus, obviously wanted to prove he could be a classical singer, as well, at least for one evening. But that's a misapprehension...

First of all, classical singers usually have a voice. Of course, the objection one might expect now is that Bocelli has none, and it's certainly true. But after hearing him in concert, I have an equally important objection to make: he also has three voices rather than one! The first voice is his intentional piano; while it's nice if someone bothers singing piano, it's not such a good idea in his particular case – the voice is simply too tiny, and reduced to piano, it actually sounds like a mouse whistle, even more so since this piano is totally unsupported. Bocelli's second voice is what I'm calling his unintentional piano: what will likely be meant as a mezzoforte, translates into a normal singer's piano. This voice is his most pleasant; it brings out the best of his timbre, the production is easy, and the tone is lyrical and velvety. Unfortunately, this voice is very limited in range, and works only in the middle and partly also in the lower register. The third voice is a curiosity: whenever Bocelli tries to produce a more dramatic, more metallic tone, his voice would instantly turn quieter instead of louder! This bizarre effect is due to the fact that his "forte" has absolutely no resonance, while his mezzoforte-piano has resonance enough – a fault in technique that's obviously less disturbing with his usual microphone in front of him, but in natural, unamplified voice, this is among the weirdest singing I've ever heard. Just imagine: a forte that's clearly less powerful than the same singer's piano!! What's making it worse is that this third voice is the only one that would permit Bocelli to hit the top notes; shrieked and squeaked top notes, mostly. Which led to a complete failure, for example, in Verdi's difficult song "L'esule".

Ok, so he'd better not sing in a theatre. (Why the Staatsoper would invite him, remains a mystery, by the way. The long-term manager, Ioan Holender, always used to speak very contemptuously of Bocelli. Knowing Holender's policy, it's hard to imagine he had reasons other than financial to schedule this Bocelli recital.) But with a pleasant timbre, and with the technical possibility to amplify his forte to the extent of being actually louder than his piano, couldn't he still make nice classical recordings? After all, Joseph Schmidt had not exactly a huge voice, either? Well... unfortunately, the strain particularly on the top notes is already so grave that it's hard to imagine he could make, with whatever technical support, a pretty recording today (at almost 50 years of age, let's not forget that). And even more important, maybe, and certainly more surprising: it's not that Bocelli the pop singer would teach those black suit guys at the opera how to heat up an audience. Nil. He – much like his piano accompanist, Carlo Bernini – has not only stylistic issues with every music from early baroque to Bellini (it grows better from Verdi on). He is, above all, just a terribly bland singer. Very difficult to stick to it instead of zoning out. No worries, though: the next top note won't fail to draw back your attention, and your compassion for Bocelli's chords.

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