'Bocelli boppers' stand by their man

Italian tenor's new release tries to satisfy both his harsh critics and adoring fans

In America, his albums outsell not just all classical musicians, but also Puff Daddy and Garth Brooks.

In the past five years, Andrea Bocelli's recordings, including the pop discs "Sogno" and "Romanza," have sold more than 30 million copies, while his concert recitals earn him between $1 million and $2 million each, according to an Italian newsweekly.

Bocelli's husky but heart-rending sound has all of the emotional tug of a triumphant street singer, and his fans are fiercely protective of their hero.

The blind tenor from northwest Tuscany, who appeared last month in Sydney as an Olympic torch carrier, leads an active life, physically and intellectually. Trained as a lawyer at the venerable Pisa University, he wrote a thesis on the 18th-century French theorist Montesquieu and practiced as a public defender before deciding to pursue music professionally. A bookish fellow, Bocelli has been known to quote Tolstoy and Kant in interviews. Some successful tenors do not even read music, let alone Tolstoy.

Something of a Francophile, Bocelli performed songs by Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour at piano-bar engagements before he was discovered as a pop singer by Luciano Pavarotti. The international success of schmaltzy tunes like "Con Te Partiro" ("Time To Say Goodbye") followed in 1995.

Bocelli's attentiveness to words is clear in recordings, where he sings with a directness in foreign languages that took a tenor like Placido Domingo many years to master. As a trained pianist, he sings on-key more reliably than some others. Yet critics have always differed on Bocelli's real gifts.

Whereas The Wall Street Journal and Britain's The Independent concur that his voice is reminiscent of a "young Pavarotti," others have been merciless in their fault-finding. After his stage opera debut in the United States, last October at the Detroit Opera in Massenet's "Werther," a Detroit News headline read, "Pop Singer Bocelli Fizzles In Opera Debut." Critic Lawrence B. Johnson wrote he heard "exactly what one might have expected of an untrained voice: brave and not without a certain charm, but essentially inadequate to the task and ultimately boring...."

Even Bocelli supporters like The Boston Globe's Richard Dyer are not uncritical, pointing out that the tenor can sound "raw and strained ... the way an untrained folk singer does."

If so, most fans couldn't care less. According to The New Republic, Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet arrives at his office at 7 a.m. every morning in order to blast Bocelli records behind shut doors.

No lover of pop songs, Bocelli asserts that he recorded them in order to interest people in the music he really loves - opera. Indeed, this is the still unproven hope of marketers, who point out that only a small fraction of the millions of Bocelli-boppers have ever visited an opera house.

Now that Bocelli can provide very comfortably for his wife and two sons, he is returning to his initial love. His new "Verdi" CD (Philips 464600) of arias, including gut-busters like "Di Quella Pira" from "Il Trovatore," shows him only partly mastering this repertory, which is some distance from the true lyric-popular identity of his voice.

In November, a full-length recording of Puccini's "La Boheme" on Philips will display his plausibly yearning incarnation of the role of starving poet Rodolfo.

Bocelli's live onstage singing of Verdi will be limited to January gala performances of the composer's "Requiem" in Munich, Germany (2001 marks 100 years since the composer's death). Bocelli has the smarts not to try to stretch a lyric voice to heroic proportions.

And unlike screen tenor Mario Lanza, with whom he is sometimes inexactly compared, Bocelli is no sheerly instinctive performer, swaggering through music with natural gifts. He studied his role in "Werther" obsessively by listening to recordings.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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