4 & 5 maggio, 2007
Grande Evento al Bellini
From the beginning, this trip to Sicily had felt unsettled. Andrea’s sudden cancellation of the opera Andrea Chenier had thrown us off balance, as it must have done for many others. In a half-panicked flurry, we revised plans, changed reservations, rebooked flights…and that was only after we had first carefully considered whether to continue at all with the long-anticipated trip. But it was my 60th birthday present, and we had never been to Sicily. So we went.
And then, all the long way home from Catania—from high above the startling turquoise and intense azure of the Mediterranean….into Fiumicino, through the whirlwind farewell evening walk to all our favorite spots in Rome, then, the next morning, the endless hours across the Atlantic home—my thoughts would turn and turn again to the "grande evento al Bellini," as the newspapers called it.
On both nights of the concert, as we walked into the Teatro Massimo Bellini, people were standing in the piazza in small circles talking animatedly. Mostly these were Italians. There were young and old. A little girl of 5 or 6 twirled in her pretty dress and white fur cape that clearly made her feel like a true principessa. We watched as a white-haired nonna was lovingly escorted one slow step at a time to her seat near the front. I think, perhaps, she was not there to see the soprano! There was a sizable group of Americans from the U.S. Navy Base at Sigonella outside of Catania. Many of them had served in Iraq. The young man seated beside us with his wife had just returned from his second tour—his specialty was disarming explosives. I could only hope this beautiful music, whose final words are "grant us peace," would be a balm to his heart and soul. For his wife, he was giving her the long-held dream of hearing Andrea for the first time. As we watched others come in, it seemed evident that many were coming to a theater of this kind for the first time. The instant they entered, they would stop stock-still, mouth and eyes suddenly wide in awe, captivated instantly by the spirit of the venerable gold and red space more than a century old.
The theater is smaller than Teatro di San Carlo in Naples where Andrea first sang the Petite Messe Solennelle a year ago. It was easily filled to overflowing with the glorious resonant sound of the chorus and the solo and the harmonizing voices of the principal singers. We were in the last row both nights, which was still close, and Andrea’s voice was clearly audible over the orchestra and soared out with the other singers. This intimate setting delivered Andrea’s carefully crafted notes to us as if he were bestowing a private concert. We are bereft of such jewel-box shrines to la musica in the U.S. In Italy, for even the smallest towns, they are the norm, taken for granted. This is what brings us from far across the ocean to hear our tenor’s voice in a setting that cannot be duplicated. The giornale in Catania created a special hyphenated designation for those of us fortunate enough to make such a pilgrimage—"Bocelli-Friends."
Petite Messe Solennelle. I have loved it from the first note I had heard at Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. This glorious work of Rossini is humbly humane, profoundly faithful, touching in its heartfelt passion, contagious in its soaring spirit, simple in its truth, moving in it plea for mercy and peace. No wonder it was an obvious choice for Andrea…it suits him perfectly. Through all the intricate harmonizing and complex interweaving of the notes, Andrea never missed an entry. Of course, he alone was without a score in hand. This music, secured in mind and heart, is poured straight out to us from him, unfettered by any need to read it note by note. In fact, more than once, if you were watching, he was plainly seen to mouth the parts of the bass, mezzo, and soprano along with them. He had committed the entire score and libretto to his seemingly unlimited memory.
All the principals had solos and also joined in duets. The soprano had more than one. But the tenor’s "Domine Deus" comes first. It is so distinctive—distilled triumph…a pure and majestic statement of the dominion of the Lord God. The Latin words themselves have a regal sound ("Rex celestes"), and Andrea’s superb diction raises them to the highest level. He sings it for all he is worth, and then quietly takes his seat as the work moves on. His moment in the spotlight seems much too brief, and it is so difficult to resist the natural urge to applaud madly in response to him. But this is generally not accepted etiquette for this classical work. (Although later in the program, the soprano was acknowledged after her solo "O salutaris hostia.")
After a tender "Qui tollis peccata mundi" duet from the soprano and mezzo and a rather sedate solo from the bass, the irresistibly infectious rhythm of "Cum Sancto Spiritu" crescendos to an unleashed, brilliant gallop of joy in Rossini’s little Mass. It is a moment when the audience is powerless to resist responding with applause to the exuberance of the final burst from the chorus. Andrea, too, beamed a smile of pleasure at this moment both nights. The great "Credo"…"I believe"…follows and is the heart of the work in which the soloists intone the basic tenets of the faith. As he has often stated, Andrea is a believer. He sang these single lines assigned to him with evident conviction and pride—his voice was strong and straightforward. "Agnus Dei" concludes the work. During this emotionally wrenching and powerful mezzo solo, Andrea was markedly intent…immersed in the grip of the anguished plea for mercy and peace forged into this final piece.
Marcello Rota was the conductor, a familiar colleague and ally of Andrea. He too seemed quite taken with Rossini’s work and exhibited more emotion and athleticism in his conducting than I had ever noticed before in his past concert work with our tenor. In fact, at times, Rota was so animatedly electrified that you could swear Andrea channeled the conductor’s energy and "watched" and smiled frequently at his loyal maestro friend’s uncharacteristic fit of emotional abandonment. It is a big responsibility to choreograph orchestra, choir, and the four singers with precision and feeling. On this occasion, Rota was masterful, and that isn’t a word I would normally connect with him.
Compared with the other singers, Andrea seemed more respectfully meditative and intent on the music during the choral parts and when not singing. The soprano often gazed absently out into the theater. The mezzo pored over her book, looking as if she often needed the reassurance of yet one more review of the score. The bass frequently looked preoccupied. Andrea consistently maintained an appreciative expression that reflected his affection for the piece. But, of course, who knows what thoughts might have been mincing about in his mind up there!? And I know it isn’t charitable to make physical comparisons, but when Andrea and the bass stood together, it was impossible to ignore the contrast—Andrea elegantly tailored to perfection; the bass….not so much.
About three quarters of the way into the Petite Messe, there is a long, long, loooong piano solo, rather puzzling in its presence at that point. Frankly, it is a bit tedious, but it provides the perfect opportunity to observe Andrea, without being distracted by the need to listen more intently to the work. Andrea does not do "still" very easily. Perhaps one reason is the constant search for the point of balance in a chair, actually most chairs, that cannot easily accommodate all grandly handsome 6’3" of him. But he had achieved a somewhat satisfactory chair stance at this point in the concert: knees a bit apart, back straight, head at a slight tilt. I have noticed before that when seated, the length of his torso puts him at least a head higher than anyone else nearby. But what particularly drew my gaze at this point were his hands…. each hand at rest at midthigh, slightly spread out. These are gentle giant hands. There is something familiar about them, I’m thinking. And then it strikes me…Abraham Lincoln hands. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, has been a lifelong Mecca for me, and the hands of that imposing statue are hands I know and love. Hands of gentle strength, determined. Like Andrea’s. For the moment, he holds them still, but in the course of any given concert, who among us has not studied every nuance of their animated course. Through these performances at the Bellini, I watched them grasp the safety bar behind the conductor’s podium, keep time in what Andrea must have supposed a secret place where no one sees his private conducting, fidget with the trimly tailored white formal vest, brush away a stray wisp of hair, twitch his noble nose, gently touch his neighbor supportively, reach out for reassurance, smooth the elegant Armani trousers, tap a rhythmic accompaniment…nearly always moving in some way or another.
Both nights, the applause for the ensemble at the concert’s end was most generous. In general, Europeans do not work themselves into the kind of delirious appreciation that Americans manage routinely for Andrea…at Avery Fisher Hall, for example. And in this case, there was no added incentive of a possible encore or two to be coaxed. But the audience stayed in place and applauded loudly and long enough to bring the soloists back onstage at least three times. Mind you, this was no small feat for them. The only exit from the stage was at the back, and, because space was at a premium up there, it was a tricky maneuver coming and going through the maze of musicians and up and down some kind of barrier in the rear. Nevertheless, Andrea managed easily, and all basked in the well-earned approval.
There was a lot of media buzz opening night. There were a TV cameraman and a reporter in the theater doing preliminary color commentary. There were several photographers during the first half of the Friday concert who, honestly, were annoyingly intrusive and distracting during the performance with their clicking cameras and loudly thumping steps jockeying for position on the theater’s wooden flooring. The back-to-back headlines in La Sicilia Friday and Saturday nights were "Bocelli strega il pubblico" and "Bocelli lascia freddino il pubblico"—Bocelli bewitches, Bocelli leaves them a little cold. Critics. It is all too schizophrenic to make sense of. But I learned a terrific new word from the reviews: "beniamino," the favorite. Literally, it is the name Benjamin, the favored youngest son of Jacob in the Old Testament story, but made into a noun. I like it. It fits. Of all the other little tenors, Andrea is clearly our favorite, our beniamino. Impartial? We don’t even try. E’ cosi’.
Allora, we are home again. What I can’t get out of my head is Andrea. (No big news flash for any of us there, you’re thinking!) It is that unforgettable image of him standing, once again, in a storied theater. Statuesque, proud. On that stage, it is so undeniable that he is doing what he was born to do. He strikes that instinctive tenor stance, hands calmly at his side, determined, focused, giving us all he has to give, as always. It is more than enough.
For the present, all is quiet on the Bocelli front. Our Sicilian adventure began and ended unsettled. Unanswered questions remain. Where from here, Andrea? Dove sei, dove andrai, Maestro caro?
By Cami McNamee