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A reach beyond opera

Special to The Times

“That’s one of the most famous operas in the world -- ‘Carmen,’ ” a middle-aged gentleman explained to a couple of companions during intermission at Andrea Bocelli’s Hollywood Bowl concert Sunday.

OK, so maybe this wasn’t the most opera-savvy audience in the world. But a wide variety of people embraced the Verdi, Puccini and Bizet selections that made up the bulk of the evening’s first half, in which the Italian tenor was joined by baritone Luis Ledesma and soprano Ana Maria Martinez with Steven Mercurio conducting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and Cal State Fullerton choir.

And it was quite a diverse audience: It included a young woman wearing a button with the rock band KISS’ logo on her jacket as she accompanied her grandfather, Donald Trump and Kirk Douglas in the front boxes, and the proud parents of “American Idol” runner-up Katharine McPhee, who would perform with Bocelli later in the show.

But as much as the capacity crowd may have appreciated the opera numbers, there was a sense at intermission that they were ready for something else. Or maybe the wine being quaffed at many seats, de rigueur for the Bowl experience, was just kicking in.

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Whatever it was, there was a decidedly looser feel in the second half, both in the audience and on stage, where the music skewed to movie and romance standards, Italian mixed a little with English.

That was clear from the moment Bocelli returned to the stage for his first song after intermission and was greeted with whoops and wolf whistles -- eliciting a sheepish grin from the singer, who had been fairly staid and somber in the first half.

To Bocelli’s credit, although he didn’t stray far from the tried-and-true in the operatic portions, he also didn’t pander to the audience. The only everybody-knows-it piece in the first half was the Toreador song from “Carmen,” performed by Ledesma, hamming it up thoroughly. The singers separately and together showed notable talent (if in limited settings, certainly not as demanding as sustaining a full opera performance). And Bocelli may not be the most artistic of singers, but he has fine control and the rich tone of a classic Italian tenor.

In the later portion there was much more hamming going on, though. Even Mercurio got in the act, nearly tripping on the podium and turning it into a little slapstick gag. Bocelli too became more of a showman as things wore on. Following a singer-less orchestra showcase of a tango composed by Argentine master Astor Piazzolla (one of several orchestral instrumentals leaning toward soundtrack lushness), Bocelli returned, having changed from his black tails into a white dinner jacket. This, he explained, was the way he had to dress to perform songs from his recent “Amore” collection of classic love songs, and then sang “Besame Mucho” in crooner mode with a hand-held microphone.

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The mood continued as McPhee slinked on stage to show off her crossover chops on “Somos Novios” (It’s Impossible), taking the role sung by Christina Aguilera on Bocelli’s recording. Her spontaneous, brief duet with Bocelli on a rehearsal segment shown during one “American Idol” installment was perhaps the most impressive singing by a contestant the entire season. Yet as pleasant a voice as McPhee has -- think of Mariah Carey with restraint -- it got lost next to Bocelli’s powerful pipes, as well as in the increasingly overdone arrangement. That was true again when she took the Celine Dion role on an encore duet of “The Prayer,” with composer-producer David Foster joining at the piano.

With even Trump getting into the act, coming on stage to present Bocelli with a platinum CD award for the million-plus sales of “Amore,” it almost felt like an old-fashioned variety show. Bocelli today stands somewhere between tragic post-World War II popularist Mario Lanza and newbies Josh Groban and Michael Buble -- all crowd-pleasing romanticists.

And the crowd was certainly pleased, even ready for more opera at the end with the inevitable finale of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” bringing thunderous applause even from those who don’t know what opera it’s from. In this context, does it really matter?


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