Colors, sound and darkness Music: Bittersweet and powerful, the magnetic voice of tenor Andrea Bocelli has reached a global crescendo.

October 16, 1998|By Charles Passy | Charles Passy,COX NEWS SERVICE

"A voice is a color, it's a sensation, it's impossible to describe." So says Andrea Bocelli in his video "A Night in Tuscany," the PBS pledge-drive favorite that has catapulted the 40-year-old Italian singer to worldwide renown. It's as profound a summation of the human voice as any poet might utter. But Bocelli should know.

Listen to him, and you swear you've got a direct line to the angels. The voice is like a richly aged red wine: complex, mysterious, full of notes of sweetness and sadness. It is not your typical operatic tenor, an instrument of bravado. It is, in a word, vulnerable.

When Bocelli, who is blind, sings at the MCI Center in Washington Sunday, it will come at a moment when the singer, who looks like a cross between Omar Sharif and Don Johnson, has all but conquered the planet. Since the release of his first CD in his native country five years ago, Bocelli has posted sales figures associated more with Madonna and Puff Daddy than Verdi and Puccini.

"Romanza," his signature album of contemporary Italian songs, has sold 2 million copies in America since it came out a year ago -- "which is a pretty outstanding achievement for an artist who doesn't sing in the English language," says Kevin Gore, a senior vice president at PolyGram, Bocelli's label.

But there's more. Since it first aired in December 1997, "A Night in Tuscany" has become a PBS blockbuster. It is duly trotted out each pledge drive -- and the switchboard lights up.

There's something about Andrea. But what exactly? By the tenor's admission, his voice is still a work in progress. There's a decisive thinness in his upper register, a lack of bite when the words demand it. "The voice isn't a complete instrument in the same way of a Pavarotti or a Domingo," says Malcolm Arnold, a Florida-based opera singer and vocal coach.

But even Arnold admits there's another quality to Bocelli, a quality reinforced by his technical imperfections -- and perhaps his blindness since a soccer accident at age 12. "There is a honesty to him that seems to be lacking in typical tenor gesturing, both vocally and physically," Arnold says.

Arnold's point is reiterated by a viewing of "A Night in Tuscany," filmed in Pisa, not far from Bocelli's birthplace, Lajatico. When the tenor sings, he rarely moves. Rather, the music seems to inhabit him in a quiet, measured way.

Although Bocelli is an opera singer foremost, he embraces popular material, "because it's very important to bring the public to the theater. I think pop music and opera music are two very different things, but it's difficult to say [which is] inferior or superior."

But unlike Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti, who in their quest to achieve global stardom sing anything from Sinatra to Lloyd Webber, Bocelli cultivates a specific kind of pop song: the Italian power ballad. It's a music rarely heard in this country, and it suits Bocelli's voice like velvet.

For proof, listen to Bocelli's recording of "Con Te Partiro" (Time to Say Goodbye), the hit tune he re-recorded as an Italian-English duet with Sarah Brightman. It's a stretch of

unrestrained, bittersweet melody that builds to enormous climax. a pop star sang it, it would sound beyond his or her reach. If an opera star sang it, it would sound overblown. With Bocelli, it's just right.

Marketing has also played a crucial role in Bocelli's rise. The first airing of "A Night in Tuscany" was timed around the gift-buying holiday season -- and just when the tenor's albums were hitting American stores.

And there are times during the documentary portions of "A Night in Tuscany," when the tenor is shown strolling the beach with his wife, Enrica, and the elder of his two sons, 3-year-old Amos, or walking through his parents' vineyard, that Bocelli becomes an advertisement for the Italian tourist authority.

Bocelli is a product of a rural background -- his parents sold farm equipment and bottled their own wine. He studied music as a child -- piano, flute and saxophone -- but his real interest was in singing. He went to law school and practiced for a year, but found he preferred the piano-bar circuit.

His big break came in 1992 when the Italian rock star Zucchero auditioned him for a pop-opera. The part went to Pavarotti, but Zucchero invited Bocelli on tour.

Television appearances further established Bocelli's reputation in Italy. And with the release of the single "Con Te Partiro," an international star was born. It wasn't long before Bocelli was singing for Pope John Paul II.

Now, Bocelli is contemplating any number of offers, from more recordings to worldwide touring to operatic roles. So far, he's done only a handful of productions, including the career-defining role of Rodolfo in a production of Puccini's "La Boheme" that was televised in Italy.

As for his visual impairment, it's a subject that Bocelli rarely discusses. "I know what colors look like, and I have an idea of the world," he said in a 1997 interview. "I believe we all have a destiny that we can perceive. Mine was singing."

Andrea Bocelli

When: 8 p.m Sunday at MCI Center, 601 F St. NW.

Tickets: $45, $85, $100, $125 by phone charge at 410-481-SEAT and at Hecht's, Lyric Opera House, Morris Mechanic, Sound Garden, Towson State University, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Athletic USA, Baltimore Arena and Baltimore Tickets.

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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