The prescribed routine for an untried opera singer: Find an out-of-the-way opera company and make your necessary mistakes in front of an undemanding audience, critics numbering few to none. Then emerge, assured and polished, in the big time. If you're Andrea Bocelli, you can forget that. The fully developed superstar of the pop and crossover firmament learned there's only one way to make a North American operatic debut--in the national spotlight, with fans and critics flying in from everywhere, the vulnerability quotient extremely high.
Onstage here at Michigan Opera Theatre on Friday night, Bocelli must have found some comfort in the role of Werther, the melancholy hero of Massenet's opera after Goethe. "Werther's" music is a cry of frustration over fate not going one's way. Not a magazine nor television profile of this sightless, Grammy-winning pop singer has failed to mention Bocelli's long-held desire to do opera. Never mind that the prospect of his negotiating a treacherous set is an insurance underwriter's nightmare, or that a conductor accustomed to giving visual cues would have to invent new schemes. Even that a three-hour opera makes demands of endurance and theatrical pacing that a three-minute song does not. This is something Bocelli has wanted to do, and at 41, he has found people to help him do it.
One of them is Denyce Graves, the Washington-born mezzo-soprano, who paused in the swift rise of her own career to sing, brilliantly, the role of Werther's star-crossed lover Charlotte. She was also a rapt, emotional listener who pulled people into Bocelli's effort, generously supporting a friend who struggled. The other helper is Steven Mercurio, the conductor, who coaxed a decent show out of difficult circumstances, playing to Bocelli's strengths and bringing waves of orchestral power up under his dynamically thin high notes, to give the arias a dramatic ride.
As for Bocelli, he's much like the new baseball stadium for the Tigers that's under construction next door--a publicly visible work in progress. Were he a conservatory graduate doing Werther like this, one would comment on the honest effort and the naturally beautiful voice, silvery and virile, with good pitch, yet high notes that retreated toward intimacy and introspection.
Real opera tenors let it rip at the top, but Bocelli doesn't do that, at least not yet. His best singing came in the gentle first-act reverie "O nature, pleine de grace," despite an obvious case of nerves over negotiating Allen Charles Klein's airy set. He also had some good moments in his initial love scene with Charlotte, and at the last, on his deathbed. None of these scenes required the explosive bursts of passion, anger and torment that tap into those high notes at full pour.
Director Mario Corradi faced logistical challenges not only in Bocelli's sightlessness, but also in his natural reticence as a performer. Bocelli doesn't move much at all in concerts, hands at his side or clasping a scarf, looking downward. Corradi succeeded in moving Bocelli around the stage to a significant degree, playing Werther not overtly as a blind man, although there was affecting dramatic truth in the way Werther touched Charlotte's features as he described them, and in the lingering of his fingers over the pages of the Ballads of Ossian before handing her the volume.
What's missing from Bocelli's achievement can be found at any medium-size opera house, in the Werther of a journeyman artist. The microphone loves Bocelli. The opera stage as yet does not. It takes specific body and voice technique to vary color, intensity, emotion, character, through a long night of singing. As the minutes expanded into hours, Bocelli came to seem withdrawn, unchanging, drained. By the time he got to "Pourquoi me reveiller," the famous third-act aria, he was out of good ideas.
For a textbook example of how to build a long sequence of overwhelming power, Bocelli had to look no further than Graves's Christmas Eve drawing room scene. She began it stretched out from a chair, her legs extended, her body rigidly diagonal, motionless, studiously--one might say fiercely--calm. Reading Werther's letters one by one, Charlotte revealed her inner torment, erupting in tearful grief, and then a desperate plea for divine strength over the course of three successive arias.
Below Graves's luscious, endlessly resourceful voice was a formidable interpretive strategy, carefully calibrated, exquisitely controlled. Bocelli might find good counsel in that.
Bocelli performs in "Werther" at Michigan Opera Theatre through Nov. 14. For information call 313-237-7464.
CAPTION: Andrea Bocelli in Detroit in the Michigan Opera Theatre's "Werther."