August 28, 2005


Leesburg to Wales to Verona: "L’Amatissimo Andrea Bocelli"
by Cami McNamee

What, you may well ask, were you thinking, embarking on this manic trip to two countries for back-to-back concerts within a mind-numbing four-day span?? As my boss put it succinctly (with a disapproving edge to her voice), "NO ONE goes to Europe for a long week-end!!!" The simple response? In the end, I just couldn’t resist the desire to hear that voice teamed in duet with Bryn Terfel in a setting that was unmatched and among a people who cherish song in the marrow of their bones. I just couldn’t say no to the chance to hear that beloved voice in the storied Arena di Verona—ancient Roman ruin that had echoed with the voices of opera legend. I tried. Sensibly, I told myself that this was irrational, impractical, foolish, indulgent, irresponsible, immature, and bordering on…well, crazy.

I am home now. I don’t think that anymore.

But I should begin at the beginning. By the time we drove through the stone archway to the site of the Faenol Festival near Bangor, Wales, we had covered a lot of rocky territory—days of futile effort to resist the lure of such a madcap journey, a missed flight from Philly to Manchester, a dismal five-hour forced exile in Shannon airport (don’t ask), and learning too late that not only were we without accommodation in Wales but it was a "Bank Holiday" weekend and we were in fierce competition for anything still available. More grey hairs for me . . . child’s play for Jack. He managed everything. But, as we approached the festival grounds Saturday night on a trial run for the Sunday opera night, slow panic was creeping in. All I could think was "we came all this way and we still have no ticket." Jack, on the other hand, remained unperturbed by the trivial fact that the announced appearance of Andrea had been enough to sell out the Sunday tickets in an amazingly short span and that now, the security guard confided to us, they expected a crowd of unprecedented numbers—more than 12,000 (7, 000 had been sold for Van Morrison). But I digress. As I said, "No ticket." So Saturday night we were in search of the ticket office, which Jack found just in time to see it close.

Blessedly, the guardian angel of fans was watching from on high and sent no less than Marilyn Henry, who founded and runs the Bryn Terfel equivalent of! Jack, in his inimitable way, happened to meet her, struck up a conversation, told our woeful tale, and learned of her connection to the festival. Her true and devoted fan’s heart knew instantly how we felt. After all, she had followed Bryn to 49 states and who knows how many countries of Europe. "I know how it is," she commiserated, and her good heart and the tradition of Welsh hospitality galvanized her instantly to set about to find a way to help. Through her intervention, we would at least gain access to the Promenade, or lawn seating, on the hillside. Then providentially on Sunday, shortly before the concert, a row of tickets was released, and we were suddenly center aisle in the first section!

As early as 3:30 Sunday afternoon the crowds were gathering to secure their spot for the 8:00 concert. These were mostly home folk, but large numbers had come from all over England and I’m sure a good international representation as well (I met a woman from Norway; our Renate, and husband Fabian, represented Germany). The BBC Wales roving reporter decided that Jack and I, from Virginia, had definitely come the farthest. All were in a holiday mood. There was interim entertainment from the stage, and a documentary about Bryn on the giant screens set up. People established their little home away from home. Local foods were sold. I tried the minted lamburger smothered in onion (no, honestly, it was quite good). Good Welsh beer and ales were offered and nonalcoholic drinks like Bocelli Blasters—a colorful concoction of carefully layered fruit juices. People were warm and open. We struck up conversations as we "queued up" for this or that. Soon word spread that we had come "all the way from Virginia" just to hear Bryn and Andrea sing together. The Welshmen approved. They too loved Andrea Bocelli.

Oh, did I forget to mention the 30-40 mile an hour wind that blew steadily through the entire frigid day and evening? Opera singers must be made of sturdy stuff because the three who took the stage that night had little shelter from the daunting blasts—but sing they did, in strong tones that wove us one enchanted evening. At one time or another, all made little jokingly dismissive gestures—holding down their respective dress, long coat, or Armani tux with a laugh at the futility of it. Andrea won the originality award with a little tenor two-step improvised at one point to make his blood move round. All seemed lighthearted and adventurous in the face of the wind’s daunting challenge to their voices and stamina. I suspect, however, that Bryn had a slight home advantage ;-)

Had I time in my life for another obsession, it would be Bryn Terfel. He is riveting onstage, with an ease and command that demands respect. This was amply displayed with Iago’s aria Credo from Verdi’s Otello. The voice is rich and easy and beautiful—and like Andrea’s, touches the heart. His playful interaction with anyone who comes within reach is a pleasure to watch. He played the pan pipes with puckish gusto during The Magic Flute aria Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja. When he sang Leporello’s aria Madama, il catalogo è questo, he mercilessly teased a succession of female musicians who had the misfortune to be in the accessible first row, using them as handy examples during the impossible cataloguing of Don Giovanni’s worldwide "conquests." This aria in particular allows Bryn free rein for his consummate acting skills that ably reinforce his superlatively expressive baritone voice. But face it, even Bryn couldn’t distract us entirely from the nervous anticipation of Andrea’s first appearance onstage. When he finally came out, the crowd bestowed on him a shower of warmth and heartfelt enthusiasm. They loved him! Andrea’s smiles revealed that he had felt their telepathic embrace—and the applause level rose a notch in response. It was lovely. He gave us a jaunty rendition of the Brindisi and also Viva il vino from Cavalleria Rusticana. Then the familiar and well-loved notes of E lucevan le stelle rekindled the applause. Andrea was in good form…secure and expressive and holding the notes. The clenched fist—mostly absent from previous recent performances—was back. But, honestly, I think he was just trying to keep his own warmth somehow bottled up against the fierce wind.

Erin Wall, the soprano was a delight, very confident, with a natural and spontaneous manner most endearing—and particularly noticeable when she sang with Andrea. She handled the amazing pyrotechnics of Sempre libera with joyful abandon that belied the underlying mastery you knew it required. She and Andrea did a touching and dramatically interactive O soave fanciulla. She teamed with Bryn for the Pamina and Papageno duet from The Magic Flute, a role she will sing on the stage of the Lyric in Chicago in December.

But the evening was building to one obviously anticipated highlight: THE DUET. When Andrea and Bryn finally appeared together onstage for the first time, the enormous crowd in the grassy glen mastered the power of the wind and overwhelmed it with their applause. Andrea was covered in smiles. (Bryn nearly made him seem small!) Then the quiet settled, in reverent anticipation of what we knew was coming. We waited. Bryn and Andrea waited. Andrea turned quizzically to the orchestra. More waiting. It looked to me as if the wind had carried off some sheet music and several of the musicians were discreetly trying to sort it out. Bryn leaned close to Andrea and thoughtfully whispered an explanation. Finally all was ready. Andrea smiled, then visibly gathered himself for the moment. I swear time stood still in all of Wales to hear these two intertwine in harmony for that enchanted aria. Two lads, born to sing with a power to touch hearts, the love of their land ingrained in their souls, had found each other in this time and place—and we were graced with the privilege of hearing them. It was smashing!

But wait, there’s more! For the finale, the three borrowed a gimmick from some Tuscan tenor and ended the show with a three-part blending of Time to Say Good-bye. You could tell Andrea liked the little "joke." Then in a unique encore, Bryn and Andrea offered something not likely heard before: a tenor/baritone harmonizing of Pourquoi me réveiller. It was a joy to hear them blend their power and emotion again. Finally, there was the seemingly inevitable Brindisi from La Traviata. They all really seemed to be having fun up there, sharing asides with one another. At one point, Andrea bestowed a kind of affectionate big-guy faux punch to Bryn’s upper arm.

Then suddenly Bryn was summoning his strong baritone in the opening notes of the Welsh national anthem that were instantly picked up firmly and reverently by thousands more around us. On cue, fireworks blazed above the concert shell in the starry night sky. It was hard to resist the impression that the fireworks had literally been ignited by the charged energy of the performances of these three this night. And it was impossible not to be drawn in by the blazing pride in the beaming faces of these Welshmen as they joined their own Bryn to sing their anthem—red-dragon decked flags held snapping in the wind rose everywhere in the crowd. You just longed to join your voice with theirs in this strange and ancient tongue.

When the anthem was done and the last of the applause finally faded and the long process of the leaving of 12,000 people proceeded slowly, there was also time to process the emotions generated by this magical evening. The four locals who sat beside us had been taken with our tale of pilgrimage, and so we bonded through the course of the concert in our shared admiration for their Bryn and our Andrea. Kindred spirits. We hugged before they left and exchanged addresses. I heard snatches of comment here and there—all couched in superlatives. The security guards we had befriended through our long wait on site were more at ease now. The one who reminded me of Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way—asked if our long trip had been worth it. My resounding "ABSOLUTELY!!" couldn’t even begin to say how much. I asked him what he thought. "Well. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up during that one duet." All I could think was how much Andrea would love that endorsement! My friend’s buddy added, "You could tell how much Bryn admired Bocelli by the way that he looked at him on stage." And within, I was secretly hoping that this burgeoning friendship would grow and serve these two men for a lifetime. I hope we are all around to see it happen…

Wales to Verona 
From grey-drizzled Liverpool to the bright sun-bathed ruin of the ancient Arena di Verona, the transition was disorienting. Or maybe it was my lack of sleep. Our tenore was experiencing the same—jetting from Liverpool in the wee morning hours of Monday and arriving in Verona just as its first citizens were about to awaken there. How could he even think of taking on the Arena, unmiked, for a crowd the size normally found in the huge, amply amplified venues of the US under such circumstances? But Andrea never shrinks from a challenge.

We finally arrived in Verona around 3:00, ate a quick pizza and insalata caprese at a café on the piazza, and changed for the Gala. Already at 6:30 long lines of the Veronese were winding out into the famous Piazza Bra from all of the arched arena gates for the 9:00 performance. In a generous gesture, they were all guests of the Banco Popolare di Verona—a final fling to celebrate the end of summer in a town that celebrates opera full throttle from May through August, hosting thousands! Every last one of the 15,000 free tickets had been claimed. The program to be offered was quite varied, interspersing talents from the world of ballet, the stage, and of course opera.

Jack and I shared a traditional champagne as we waited in our seats and absorbed the festive excitement. It is impressive just to watch the crowd fill the massive space to capacity. When the evening’s entertainment began and the stars were announced, it was a delight to hear the last name of that conductor so familiar to our ears spoken in the perfect Italian pronunciation: Steven "Mare-koo-ree-o," and even better to hear the name Andrea Bocelli receive the elegant pronouncement it deserves—that rolled "r" and distinctive Italianate sound of the double "l".

From our seats at the back of the main floor, we gazed on the largest, open-air stage in the world. When it is brimming with supernumeraries and the outlandishly huge stage settings for such grand opera lavishness as that of Aida, it seems just adequate. But it struck me as the height of cruelty to place a lone, vulnerably diminutive singer in the midst of its cavernous maw. If ever there was a time when the critics would have been justified in their patronizing remark that Andrea merely brings out the protective instincts of his female fans, it would have been in that first instant when he stepped out from the darkness onto that yawning monster of a stage, looking impossibly small, and stood alone without even the dubious comfort of a microphone to reach out to and steady himself.

The audience was warm and friendly to him, with generous applause each time that he appeared onstage (the morning edition of l’Arena would call him "l’amatissimo Andrea Bocelli" …"the most beloved." They responded affectionately to each offered aria and duet. But they are people who have cut their teeth on the annual summer offerings of the classics of the opera world since 1913, and they have heard the legendary voices fill this space. This crowd was not exactly whipped into a frenzy of enthusiasm.

It is hard to be weaned from the power of Andrea’s amplified voice. Even the diminished but alluring power level of a live staged opera such as Werther in Bologna cannot be compared with the volume-eating capability of this vast Arena space. To be honest, it has to be said that Andrea did not rock the Arena. Also to be honest, I have heard him in better form. But, helloooo, the man had been singing against a steady, gale force wind the night before and was running on a major sleep deficit. Who else but our Andrea would refuse to flinch from the daunting vocal challenge of Di quella pira in the face of such circumstances? I went pale when I heard that selection announced. Unfortunately, no one else there knew of the odds he had taken on. And so, backed by the men of the Arena di Verona chorus, Andrea thrust his voice into that huge space. It is true that the chorus came out ahead a few times, but even so, Andrea valiantly found and held for an impressive span of time that final thrilling high C—secure and clear!

Without fail, whenever Andrea sings there are moments of intense beauty. E lucevan le stelle, that sweet, high, softly caressed note, always impossibly held and pulling at your heartstrings…O soave fanciulla with a very animated and interactive Andrea turning to his partner, Anna Maria dell’Oste, gently taking her hand, offering his arm on cue, and enfolding her in a tender embrace…Tace il labbro with the lilt of that waltzing sweetness in his voice and—OH YES!!—finally, I saw it for myself, Andrea took one of Anna Maria’s hands in his, gently grasped her at the waist, and with hesitant grace began a "piccolo" waltz that won instant appreciative applause from the crowd.

The finale, the Brindisi from La Traviata, was an undeniable showstopper! The entire Arena chorus ran from the rear, filling the two main floor aisles, champagne glasses raised, and joined Andrea and Anna Maria onstage. It seemed he finally and truly relaxed at this point and, at last, the voice was stronger and more secure. The crowd loved it and yielded their enthusiastic applause, which continued steadily through a series of final bows for all, fairly arduous because it necessitates walking the exhaustive distance back and forth across that enormous stage to acknowledge both sides of the arena audience several times.

The headlines from the morning papers summed it up nicely: "A starry evening for the Gala of summer’s end, Bocelli…enchanted the amphitheater" and "A magic Arena for the Gala" One article went on, "It was a total success, punctuated by the warm and repeated applause for the most beloved Andrea Bocelli…"

Verona to Leesburg

On the runway from the plane window, I could see the distant, hazed-over silhouette of La Serenissima—Venice. Four whirlwind days. Tranquility at last. My brain couldn’t seem to shift out of the constant internal replay of that achingly sublime Au fond du temple saint. Memories now flicked through my mind as we waited to take off:

Andrea and Bryn, of one heart, arms linked, voices full-out at that duet’s climax, forging a sound of emotional power drawn from their affinity.

Andrea demonstrating at one point onstage the "size rivalry," using Bryn’s shoulder for leverage to playfully leap to a height greater than Bryn’s

Bryn’s gift—just to me, mind you—of the simple and touching old-fashioned love song "I’ll Walk Beside You." Surely the lyrics were written for me and the man at my side and the memories we have made together—"I’ll walk beside you through the world today/While dreams and songs and flowers bless your way…" Such a sentimental idiot…my flood of tears brought such empathy from my seated neighbors.

The after-concert rendezvous with Renate and Fabian in the beer tent—toasting our tenore with those Bocelli Blitzers, reliving every precious moment, unwilling to let a single one go

The hushed, awesome moment when the program begins at the Arena di Verona—the lights go down, leaving a canopy of evening stars and, by tradition, the patrons in the gradinate (stone seats) light candles to form a glowing halo ringing the arena round our heads

The movingly reverent tradition of Va’ pensiero from the enormous chorus strung across the entire stage. And then their beautiful Humming Chorus from Madama Butterfly—tugging me back to an image of Torre del lago, full moon rising as a backdrop as if on cue at this glorious moment in the opera. (Mickie was close at that instant)

Ancora, un sacco dei bei ricordi di Andrea. Ancora, grazie dal profundo del cuore, caro Maestro! L’amatissimo Andrea…

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