Finicky listeners can say what they will about Andrea Bocelli’s voice — that it’s thin or raspy, that it lands too soft or reaches too hard, that it can’t quite fill a hall or a soul — but on Easter Sunday, it rose from the Piazza del Duomo in Milan and carried around the world.
Bocelli, 61, live-streamed a solo Easter program titled “Music for Hope — Live From Duomo di Milano” from the grand cathedral. And while nobody was in attendance apart from cathedral organist Emanuele Vianelli, who provided Bocelli’s only accompaniment, the performance drew more than 22 million viewers online before the day was over.
“On the day in which we celebrate the trust in a life that triumphs, I’m honored and happy to answer ‘Sì’ to the invitation of the city and the Duomo of Milan,” Bocelli said in an introductory voice-over with English subtitles. “The generous, courageous, proactive Milan and the whole of Italy will be again, and very soon, a winning model engine of a renaissance that we all hope for.”
The region of Lombardy, of which Milan is the capital, has been hit harder by covid-19 than anywhere else in Italy, with more than 57,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and more than 10,000 deaths — more than half of the nation’s total toll. Thus, when the cameras occasionally turned away from Bocelli to the open rows of the Duomo, or cut away to drone footage of eerily clear streets in Milan, Brescia and Bergamo, the overwhelming emptiness felt more like a looming presence — representing both the ravages of the virus and the resilience of those fighting it by locking themselves away.
At times, the empty cathedral’s natural reverb — which Bocelli sculpted more skillfully as the program progressed — felt like part of the music. Its hollowness seemed to extend far beyond the walls of the Duomo and into the streets of Paris, London, New York and the rooms of my own apartment in Washington. Even as millions of others listened along, it was, acoustically speaking, one of the loneliest-sounding services I’ve ever attended.
There were plenty of moments during the 20-minute performance that left Bocelli-challenged nitpickers, myself among them, as challenged and nitpicky as ever. His phrasings in Franck’s “Panis Angelicus” stalled here, bunched there. His falsetto felt like an unsteady shelf at the close of Mascagni’s “Sancta Maria.” And throughout, his voice remained his voice — however you regard it.
Still. As a symbol of music’s power to unite those separated by time, space or stay-at-home orders, Bocelli’s performance was flawless.
I went back and watched footage from the 2015 World Expo in Milan, when Bocelli last sang at the Duomo, accompanied by pianist Lang Lang and the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala. Thousands of fans packed the plaza, all hoisting their phones just to get a shot of the jumbotron screens bearing his face. Bocelli was and is a phenomenon — larger than life and so far away. (It’s why they call them stars.)
Five years later, the difference feels dreamlike. In this strange and solitary performance, I could hear him clear his throat and draw a breath. I could hear his footsteps as he made his way to his mark in the Piazza. He was 4,000 miles away and yet felt closer than we’re allowed to be. And as he sang an unaccompanied verse of “Amazing Grace,” he sounded less like a star than a man crying out for his country.
I could finally hear him loud and clear.
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