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Performing Arts

Opera's Supernovas Blaze Anew

Recordings * Cecilia Bartoli and Placido Domingo take interesting risks in unusual works. Andrea Bocelli, however, is another story.

*** HANDEL: "Rinaldo." David Daniels, Cecilia Bartoli. The Academy of Ancient Music; Christopher Hogwood, conductor (Decca)

*** 1/2 HAYDN: "Armida." Cecilia Bartoli, Christoph Pregardien. Concentus Musicus Wien; Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor (Teldec)

** 1/2 ALBENIZ: "Merlin." Placido Domingo, Ana Maria Martinez. Symphony Orchestra of Madrid; Jose De Eusebio, conductor (Decca)

* BACALOV: "Misa Tango." Placido Domingo, Ana Maria Martinez. Chorus and Orchestra of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia, Myung-Whun Chung, conductor (Deutsche Grammophon)

* PUCCINI: "La Boheme." Andrea Bocelli, Barbara Frittoli. Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta, conductor (Decca)

* VERDI: Arias. Andrea Bocelli. Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta, conductor (Decca)

January 07, 2001|MARK SWED | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

One doesn't have to look very far for the reasons why "Merlin" was neglected, or for the reasons why Albeniz struggled so long in its composition. The libretto is hilariously inept, its stilted language a melange of clumsy rhymes and mind-boggling syntax. (Still, Domingo might have some fun staging the work with his Washington Opera company, given such lines as: "No more shall treason's horrent head be seen presumptuous in the land of Gore!")

Money-Coutts simply defies music. His drama wanders irrationally; each of the three acts seems from a different show. Aficionados of oddball operas will delight, however, in an octet of countertenors as gnomes--they appear for all of 54 seconds near the end singing "Tric a ta trac"--don't ask!

There is little evidence here, in a Wagner-drunk score, of Albeniz's nationalist Spanish music. Still, the composer supplies some genuinely powerful musical moments, and although it takes him a while to get going, the work includes some beautiful, sensual orchestra music. Domingo's formidable Arthur is certainly the most persuasive thing about this earnest performance, which is hampered by Spanish singers with accents that only further emphasize the awfulness of the libretto. One exception is the American soprano Ana Maria Martinez, who brings a shine to the character of Nivian, a seductive slave.

Next, it is said, Domingo is eager to commission a completion of "Lancelot" for Los Angeles Opera, and why not? Such inquisitiveness keeps opera interesting, whether the works fully succeed or not. But it is not so easy to give the tenor the benefit of the doubt when he associates himself with projects such as his new recording of Luis Bacalov's "Misa Tango."

Bacalov, a Jewish Argentine film composer based in Rome and best known for his music for the movie "Il Postino," has great aspirations for his Tango Mass. Somehow the incorporation of tango in a Latin mass signifies for him issues of the Jewish Diaspora. And, given the deep emotions that the great master of the new tango, Astor Piazzolla, was able to achieve with the Argentine dance, perhaps that is not such a far-fetched idea. But Bacalov is no Piazzolla, and his sentimental imitations come close to musical sacrilege. (Also on this recording are two cheesy Bacalov arrangements of Piazzolla tangos, which he plays himself on piano with orchestral accompaniment.)

*

Of course, it's altogether easier for an accomplished opera singer to slip into Euro-schlock in a weak moment than it is for a Euro-schlockmeister to find the strength to diligently climb up into the realm of grand opera. But the ever-determined Andrea Bocelli is not to be underestimated. Whatever one thinks of Bocelli--and it is hardly any secret that most critics think him a sorry opera singer--he is clearly a uniquely charismatic performer who moves his legions of fans like no one else. Just like Bartoli and Domingo, he is immediately recognizable via his voice.

Bocelli's extraordinary popularity is based on his creamy way with a pop tune. But his first love is opera, which he claims would have been the direction of his career had he not lost his sight. Now Bocelli has the wherewithal--financially and in the goodwill of his fans--to attempt that goal, though he must overcome far greater obstacles than Domingo's: blindness and a smallish voice with pinched head tones. In preparation for recording his first operatic role, Rodolfo in "La Boheme," he reportedly threw himself into intensive sessions with a Los Angeles coach, and for security, Decca surrounded him with a cast of fresh, young Italian voices under the veteran control of Zubin Mehta.

Bocelli sings Puccini with moderate confidence. But he does not even hint at generating a character. He is no different as the carefree Rodolfo at the beginning of the opera than he is as the heartbroken one at the end. He lingers on high notes, self-absorbed, and that only adds to his seeming to be lost in his own melancholy world. (He also sounds as if he were recorded in different acoustics than those of other singers.)

Mimi is the robust Barbara Frittoli, the most talked-about emerging soprano in Italy, and as the performance unfolds slowly, very slowly, under an unusually lethargic Mehta, a curious things happens. It is Rodolfo who sounds as though he is dying, not the consumptive Mimi. Bocelli keeps trying to steal all the sympathy for himself. Perhaps we should see this as a kind of emotional empowerment for Rodolfo, and thus think of this recording as supplying something new and post-feminist to opera. Certainly, his fans won't mind.

As for Bocelli's disc of Verdi arias, they all sound pretty much the same. Here Bocelli is like the Cindy Sherman of opera. It is always his face we see, no matter what characters he is attempting to portray.

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