'Rasping': New York critics' verdict on Bocelli

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The Independent Culture

Andrea Bocelli, the blind and popular Italian tenor who, since making his stage debut in 1994, has sold millions of CDs worldwide, came to New York last week for a four-concert engagement and duly conquered it. Never mind that he is "not very good" and his high notes can evoke "strangulation".

You might pity New York's music critics, who were faced with a nasty dilemma last week. Were they to fall in with the many fans of Mr Bocelli for whom he is evidently the next Pavarotti and echo their adulation? Or should they write what they believed - that his singing is flawed - and be accused of snobbery?

What do you say when a singer arrives to perform early Verdi songs, all artfully reworked by the 20th-century composer Luciano Berio, alongside the venerable New York Philharmonic Orchestra in Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Centre and he sells out every night weeks in advance? And why quibble when on each night he elicits applause so loud only 20 minutes of encores will do before the audience leaves?

Perhaps the most important of this town's arbiters, Bernard Holland of The New York Times, opted to be honest, even if he showed considerable embarrassment in doing so. "The critic's duty is to report that Mr Bocelli is not a very good singer," he gingerly wrote in yesterday's newspaper.

Such an expression of heresy - Mr Bocelli is due similarly to take London by storm shortly - requires some elaboration. And Mr Holland obliged.

"The tone is rasping, thin and, in general, poorly supported," he went on. "Even the most modest upward movement thins it even more, signalling what appears to be the onset of strangulation. To his credit, Mr Bocelli sings mostly in tune. But his phrasing tends toward carelessness and rhythmic jumble, and the little barks and husky vocal expletives that are the mother's milk of Italian tenordom sound faded and unconvincing. The diction is not clear." We begin to get the picture.

While perhaps the bravest in his criticism, Mr Holland was not alone in questioning the talent of Italy's new maestro. "Passion? Yes. Power. No," began a review by the Associated Press. "Bocelli's voice - though robust in spirit and precisely in tune, even in the upper register - had a thin quality that never opened up." But like the Times, the AP made sure simultaneously to acknowledge the unwavering loyalty of Mr Bocelli's fans. "Was the audience disappointed? Not in the least. They loved it."

A flawed voice, after all, can be corrected in the cocoon of a recording studio and hence perhaps the success of his CDs. His first was released in 1995, one year after he appeared live for his debut in Verdi's Macbeth. The Avery Fisher Hall, meanwhile, is notoriously unflattering to the singer and, for whatever reason, the organisers opted not to magnify his voice.

Yet, pulling Mr Bocelli from future live performances might not be recommended. If his voice can be thin, his force of personality apparently isn't. It is an appeal based in part on the attractiveness of someone who has overcome obstacles. Born with a rare form of glaucoma, Mr Bocelli lost his sight entirely at age of 12 after a football accident.