VERDI:  Arias from Il trovatore, Rigoletto, Un ballo in maschera, Aida, La traviata, I lombardi, Ernani, Don Carlo, Luisa Miller  and La forza del destino.
Andrea Bocelli, tenor, Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta, cond.

PHIILIPS 464 600 (F) (DDD) TT: 60:50

No one should accuse Andrea Bocelli of following the path of least resistance. In 1996 the Italian tenor scored an international success with his album "Romanza," a collection of Italian pop songs that included "Con Te Partiò" (in duet form, performed with Sarah Brightman as the hit "Time to Say Goodbye"). Bocelli would probably have enjoyed considerable financial reward had he limited himself to "Romanza"-style repertoire. But the tenor has also chosen to include operatic arias and duets in his concerts and recordings.

Last year Bocelli made his North American operatic debut performing the title role in Jules Massenet's Werther with the Michigan Opera Theater. It was far from a critical triumph. Many reviewers noted that Bocelli quite simply did not possess sufficient volume to be heard in a large theater without the aid of electronic amplification. Undaunted,  Bocelli continues to pursue his passion for opera. According to the press kit included with this CD,"After stage performances of La BohĖme and Werther, Macbeth and The Merry Widow (Verona), future plans include L'amico Fritz, Tosca and Aida. In the autumn of 2000, he will perform Verdi's Requiem at the Arena in Verona." Bocelli recordings of the Verdi Requiem and Puccini's La BohĖme are in the works, the latter scheduled for November 2000 release.

January 27, 2001 marks the centenary of the death of Giuseppe Verdi. In honor of the memory of Italy's greatest composer, Andrea Bocelli recorded this album of arias from several Verdi operas. Giuseppe Verdi did not make life easy for tenors. His music demands a voice of power, beauty, and agility. Verdi also expected his tenors to be able to successfully negotiate a wide range of dynamic and expressive markings. Unlike his most famous successor, Giacomo Puccini, Verdi rarely provided the tenor with the comfort of a supporting orchestral cushion—most of the writing is highly exposed. And as if these were not challenges enough, Verdi tended to write a good portion of his music in the passaggio, the treacherous region in which the voice moves from the chest to head registers.

It is for these reasons that the greatest tenors will tell you that the music of Giuseppe Verdi is exceptionally difficult to sing. Even the finest, most seasoned tenors have not always been able to surmount Verdi's challenges. Still, many recordings by such luminaries as Enrico Caruso, Giovanni Martinelli, Beniamino Gigli, Richard Tucker, Carlo Bergonzi, Luciano Pavarotti, and Placido Domingo offer examples of Verdi singing at the highest level.  A tenor who records the Verdi arias that are included on this new CD will quite naturally face comparison with his august predecessors. And how does Andrea Bocelli fare when scrutinized against such company? Certainly, Bocelli possesses attributes that are assets in the performance of this music. His precise Italian diction is most welcome.  Bocelli also possesses an unusually free upper register. High Bs, Cs and even a D (in the Duke of Manuta's cabaletta in Rigoletto) for the most part ring out with security and attractive tonal quality. There is also (as Verdi requested) a diminuendo on the B-flat that concludes "Celeste Aida." However, the fact that the orchestral postlude to the aria is cut leads me to wonder whether this was achieved by electronic, rather than vocal, manipulation.

Unfortunately it seems that the positive attributes of Andrea Bocelli's voice decline as it moves downward. The passaggio region -- as previously noted, crucial in Verdi singing -- is quite often pinched and strained. And while many enjoy the quality of Bocelli's middle register, I have to confess that I find the quick vibrato to be intrusive and rather off-putting. But I do want to emphasize that the enjoyment of a singer's basic vocal timbre can be highly subjective and individual. And so, I would not suggest that those who like the sound of Bocelli's voice are misguided.

My biggest obstacle to enjoying  Bocelli as an interpreter of operatic fare rests not with the basic quality of his voice, but with the monochromatic nature of his approach. Every aria, regardless of the character, dramatic situation, etc., is essentially given the same rather baleful vocal tone. Perhaps this works effectively in Italian pop fare. But it is woefully insufficient when a singer is required to differentiate between such characters as the licentious Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto) and  Manrico (Il trovatore), who welcomes death as the gateway to eternal life with his beloved.  There are a few moments in this recital when Bocelli makes a passing effort at character development. The recitative preceding "Celeste Aida" is a bit more muscular than the tenor's norm, certainly appropriate for the Egyptian warrior RadamĖs. Likewise, the recitative before Rodolfo's "Quando le sere al placido" (Luisa Miller) has some fire. But the differences in approach are marginal at best. For the most part, each aria provides the same bland, uninflected (albeit pretty) vocalism. There is rarely a sense of tension, of forward movement, within a phrase. And as precise as Bocelli's diction most certainly is, the tenor offers little in the way of variety of inflection. In short, there are no unmitigated disasters, but there is nothing that lingers in the memory, either.

Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic accompany in dutiful fashion. The recorded sound is quite excellent. Perhaps this CD will attract some of Andrea Bocelli's fans to the world of opera. If so, the recording will have achieved some positive results. Those seeking great Verdi tenor singing will, I'm afraid, have to look elsewhere.

K.M. (Dec. 2000)