Readers of a certain age will be familiar with the concept, if not the experience, of vaudeville. This was a popular form of entertainment throughout the first half of the 20th century -- a motley variety show in which one might have found a barbershop quartet, a trained-horse act, a snake charmer and a dialect comedian, all performing on the same bill.
Vaudeville was effectively finished off by the advent of television; programs such as "The Ed Sullivan Show" were its mass-media successors. But vaudeville's spirit lives on, as was proved by a program titled "A Royal Christmas" at MCI Center Thursday night. It featured the tenor Andrea Bocelli, the Washington-born-and-bred soprano Denyce Graves, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, the Westminster Concert Choir, members of the Royal Ballet of Winnipeg, and Shumka, a troupe of Ukrainian dancers from Canada, in selections from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker." (Topo Gigio, Ed Sullivan's talking Italian mouse, did not show up.)
Bocelli, the 47-year-old from Tuscany, was the main draw, no doubt about it (although it sometimes seemed that the audience took more moment-to-moment pleasure from some of the "Nutcracker" selections). His extraordinary popularity tends to mystify musicians, who point out that his voice is small and rather pale, and his interpretations so stiff as to be practically immobile. And yet there is a frail sweetness to Bocelli's sound that cannot be denied, and his high notes are often startlingly, meltingly lovely.
Unfortunately, he was surrounded by a lot of silliness -- a ballerina pirouetting meaninglessly with a candle behind Bocelli as he sang Schubert's "Ave Maria," for example. The vast size of MCI Center made amplification even more necessary than usual at a Bocelli concert, with the result that the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra (perkily conducted by Edwin Outwater) sounded both thunderingly loud and tinnily threadbare. Moreover, the tenor's audience often was deeply rude to the other performers: A man near me nattered unrelentingly into his cell phone throughout most of the evening, turning off the contraption only when Bocelli was onstage.
Graves sang with her usual regal luster, whether joining with Bocelli in Franck's rapt "Panis Angelicus" or striking off on her own with a medley that culminated in a stirring "Go Tell It on the Mountain." Most of the dancers seemed afraid that they would fall off the abbreviated MCI stage (the vigorous strutting and kicking of the Ukrainian ensemble was an exception). The music ran the gamut from noble classicism (Franck, Schubert and Mendelssohn) to tepid showbiz ("The Most Wonderful Time of the Year"), but it was all processed into cheese food by the gooey Hollywood-style arrangements.
All in all, if I wanted to hear Bocelli, I'd invest in one of his records, where one can listen to him under the best possible circumstances. And the mixture of radiance and wonder we call the Christmas spirit is more naturally evoked in intimate concert halls or houses of worship than in a gigantic arena, halls decked with false holly. Still, there can be little doubt that MCI was one of the happiest places in town Thursday night.