09 May 2007


In the countless performances of Leoncavallo’s masterpiece Pagliacci since its 1892 premiere, there must have been times when the light tenor singing Beppe watched the other tenor, of heavier voice, in the lead role of Canio and wondered if someday he (the Beppe) would take on the dramatic role of the homicidal clown.

Listening to Andrea Bocelli attempt the role of Canio prompted the above thought, of course. His soft (if not unsupported), sweet voice has made him a recording star, and the millions of CDs of more pop-oriented material he has sold have enabled him to pursue his dream, at least in the recording studio, of attempting some of opera’s greatest tenor roles. Tosca, Trovatore, Werther — Bocelli may well be the last singer to take those great tenor roles into the recording studio. Vocal connoisseurs may weep and wail — but Decca keeps churning them out. Somebody is buying the sets...

This Pagliacci, the most recent release (although actually recorded in 2002) finds Bocelli recorded in a bathroom stall acoustic, at times even sounding as if his vocals have been double-recorded to give added weight. But it’s simply not enough. The only way Bocelli can effect force is to bark, which loses all the appeal of his voice. Although the top sounds tight, for the most part, Bocelli has the notes. He simply doesn't have the character. “Vesti la giubba” ends with exaggerated sobs that cap an inauthentic reading; “No, Pagliaccio non son” has never sounded more accurate.

And truthfully, Bocelli probably wouldn't even be as strong a Beppe as Francesco Piccoli, who doesn't have as distinctive a voice but manages to convey a sense of character in his brief appearances, including a fine serenade. Ana Maria Martinez is a pretty enough Nedda, but neither her Canio or Silvio (Roberto Accurso) prompt her to dramatic distinction. Stefano Antonucci’s Tonio also lacks a sharp profile.

A frequent artistic companion to Mr. Bocelli, Steven Mercurio leads the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Massimo Bellini di Catania in a reading that favors the lyrical sections as opposed to the verismo edges. All in all, a tamer Pagliacci is hard to imagine, and why would one want to?

Chris Mullins