Andrea Bocelli concert draws huge crowd in the rain at Central Park

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Two formidable if pleasant forces of nature swept through Manhattan’s Central Park Thursday night: a late summer storm and a highbrow media spectacle. The rains were a product of Hurricane Maria blowing hundreds of miles off the Eastern seaboard, whereas the clubby celebs came courtesy of Andrea Bocelli, the Italian superstar tenor, who breezed into town for a free concert on the park’s Great Lawn with the New York Philharmonic.

This performance, along with the band’s 9/11 tribute over the weekend, caused some hand-wringing in some parts of the city, since the costs and scheduling of these high-profile (and televised) events meant the orchestra couldn’t perform its normal slate of summer outdoor concerts. But casual fans, as well as hard-core N.Y. Phil regulars (including Alec Baldwin, naturally) still showed up for the big event—60,000 strong according to the Philharmonic. Indeed, once inside the park there was little grumbling directed at anything besides the weather and the resulting (and sometimes view-inhibiting) umbrellas.


The website for “Andrea Bocelli Live In Central Park” bills the 52-year old singer as “The World’s Most Beloved Tenor.” It will be interesting to see if that moniker is used when Bocelli comes west to Plácido Domingo territory in December for a concert at the Honda Center. (A more accurate title for Bocelli, given the hundreds of thousands of blue thumbs-ups on his Facebook page, might be “The World’s Most Beliked Tenor.”)

The first half of the concert leaned heavily on the Verdi/verismo repertoire that Bocelli clearly loves, even if it’s never been his specialty. Yes, there were some sparks of true opera fuore on display under the bandshell (which looked like the Hollywood Bowl tricked out for a “Night Under the Stars”-themed prom) but they were mainly provided by baritone Bryn Terfel, appearing as one of Bocelli’s “special guests.” His “Te Deum” from Puccini’s “Tosca” bristled with energy and theatricality, whereas Bocelli’s interpretations of operatic chestnuts mostly felt routine and unarticulated. (His “La Donna e Mobile” suggested the seducing Duke of Mantua was dozing off at the table of bad first date).

Admittedly, Bocelli sounded better in an extended passage from the finale of “Andrea Chenier” (with soprano Ana Maria Martinez), a Bizet duet with Terfel and, of course, the ultimate encore, “Nessun Dorma.” But one doesn’t shell out for four-figure VIP passes or wait for hours for free tickets to hear insightful operatic interpretation from Bocelli—no, his attraction is the big, enveloping sheen of melody, celebrity and nostalgia.

The second half of the concert, which the rains graciously held back from dampening, was a buffet of unapologetic, black-tie comfort food: a Bernstein overture, an American folk song, a Neapolitan ditty and more special guests: trumpeter Chris Botti, violinist Nicola Benedetti and even Tony Bennett, who came out to join Bocelli in singing “New York, New York.”

Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic, fresh off of playing Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony to commemorate 9/11, had no problem switching gears and playing backup to this lite-FM rat pack. Gilbert’s conducting was never soggy nor uninterested, and the orchestra played vigorously even if the massive amplification made it sound like an iPod hooked up to an analog, orange-crate speaker.

But again, you don’t come to the park for orchestral detail; you go for the unique and odd spectacle of a slender, if singular, voice singing “O Sole Mio” backed by a world-class orchestra and a 99-person choir. Also, you go for the ritual of hearing Bocelli’s anthem, “Time to Say Goodbye.” Listening to that infectious, throbbing tune in a giant outdoor venue is like experiencing Sinatra at the Sands, the Three Tenors at Dodger Stadium or “Aida” at the Pyramids—it might not actually be the best way to experience it, but it feels like it should represent some sort of apotheosis.

Not surprisingly, the moment that brought the capacity crowd to its fever pitch was Bocelli’s duet with Celine Dion. The two sang their Grammy-wining duet, “The Prayer,” and it didn’t matter that the levels weren’t calibrated or their voices in sync. What mattered was that he was in a white tux, she in a shimmery gown, and that the heavily miked high notes soared. And soar they did into the hazy night sky. With no large video screens for close-ups, you could easily pretend—as long as you kept your eyes facing north at the bandshell—that it was the late ‘90s when these artists were at their peak of fame and everything in the world seemed comfortable and safe.

Can you blame New Yorkers this week—or any American (who will all be able to watch this concert when it airs nationwide on PBS this Dec. 2)—for wanting, if only for a few hours, to party like it’s 1999?


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-- James C.Taylor