November 21, 22, 2008
Petite messe solennelle

"Together for the First Time"

Petite Messe Solennelle, Washington National Opera, November 21, 22, 2008

Once Andrea relinquishes the quiet refuge of Forte di Marmi and is again on the road to perform, the pace he maintains always amazes me. Little more than 48 hours from home, he had already breezed through a New York charity gala tribute to Robert F. Kennedy, a nationally broadcast NPR interview with Placido Domingo, and a full orchestra rehearsal of the Petite Messe with the principal singers. Ahead of him lay the challenge of two very diverse performances—the concert opera of Cavalleria Rusticana in San Antonio and the concert before the cathedral in the seaside Mexican town of San Francisco de Campeche. Our tenor is masterful and matchless at shifting gears in the musical realm. But it must have been a challenge to deal with the shock of the unseasonable spell of bitter cold that held the nation’s capital in its grip during his stay in Washington, DC.

November had already been a significant month in our city—celebrating a new president-elect, the lame-duck Congress in session to deal with rapidly changing and alarming economic events, the nation’s Christmas tree in place and awaiting the ceremonial lighting, and construction already proceeding at the Capitol and along the parade route for the historic January presidential inauguration. But in the microcosm of the music world, in the corner of our hearts reserved for a Tuscan tenor pursuing his dream, yet another landmark event of a different sort was about to take place. "Two great artists…together for the first time" read the larger-than-life poster at the top of the red-carpeted stairway leading into the lush crimson and gold interior of the opera house in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In embracing this debut of Andrea with the Washington National Opera, it seemed fairly clear that Maestro Domingo had drawn the symbolic equivalent of a line in the sand of the classical music world. The program notes were unequivocal: "Tenor Andrea Bocelli, one of the most important voices in opera, has infused new life into opera’s theatrical and discographic panorama."

This much anticipated performance of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle that had sold out months in advance was a first for the Washington National Opera, but it was the third experience with this piece for Andrea, Jack and me. The first had introduced us to Naples and the storied Teatro di San Carlo, the second at Teatro Massimo Bellini in Catania, had given us our first taste of Sicily. But this time Andrea was in our own backyard, and Bocelli friends of long standing had traveled from Washington State and Michigan to share it with us.

Gioachino Rossini wrote this mass, his last major work, when he was 71 years old. Domingo’s comments in the program notes related that the composer called it "the last mortal sin of my old age." When I looked at the two pages of Latin lyrics in the program and tried to sound them out word by word, I wondered how anything so awkwardly foreign could be transformed into such gloriously soaring beauty. Yet, I had fallen in love with this work the first time I heard it and believe it is easy for anyone to do so. The closely blended harmonies throughout in duet and quartet are so lovely. Its energy and joy are infectious. The entire work has a strong, driving, forward movement, rhythmic and lyrically beautiful, also touching and poignant. In fact, these qualities as a whole apply equally to our tenor—a perfect artistic match! Although there is only one solo aria where Andrea can shine in the spotlight, there are numerous single lines when his beautifully distinctive timbre stands out. His careful crafting of each lyrical moment with strongly felt emotion, precisely careful diction (this boy knows his way around Latin!), and perfectly controlled harmony are little gems of delight bestowed to us throughout. Because we have heard him speak often of his faith and its meaning for him and of his particular devotion to the Madonna, he infuses the lines that fall to the tenor with a personal emphasis that you can hear and feel. There are several of these in the Credo ("I believe") telling of the Christ—made man by the Holy Spirit through the Virgin Mary and who ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God—and of belief in the church that is "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic."

As the title implies, this liturgical work is based on the prayers of the Catholic mass. The first piece, the Kyrie, belongs to the orchestra and chorus. The four principal singers are seated at this point. Both nights, Andrea sat forward in his chair, back straight and with a palpable aura of tension, like a tightly wound spring. At this quiet moment of anticipation, and throughout similar points during the 80-minute work, Andrea was deeply attentive and clearly involved in following all aspects of the piece, frequently quietly hand-conducting beside his chair as he is wont to do, or silently mouthing the parts of the other singers. Watching the others using their quiet breaks to pore over their scores or quickly check them frequently during the performance, it is impossible to ignore the impressive fact that Andrea holds the entire complex work in his memory alone and yet never once missed a note.

The exquisite Gloria is the first time that the four principal singers stand in unison to blend their voices in the first gracefully interwoven harmonies. Andrea seemed a bit concerned about rising and sitting in unison with the others at the proper moment and would often turn in anticipation to the bass seated beside him, Alexander Vinagradov, whose cue he depended on. More than once, it seemed to me that Andrea knew the cue better than the young Russian did, but nonetheless waited for the discreet touch to confirm the correct moment to stand and be seated.

Domine Deus, the beautiful tenor solo follows the Gloria. Seeing Andrea left standing alone as the introductory clarion notes ring out from the orchestra momentarily brought butterflies to my stomach, but his first notes of this familiar sacred aria were firm, crisp, and clear, dispelling any need for nervous concern. I love the regal vocal bearing and faithful conviction he brings to this piece, particularly his proud intonation of "Rex caelestis" ("heavenly king")! Andrea’s voice, confident and proud, carried easily through the hall. (He seemed to have risen above the cold he had been fighting over the last two days.) When he finished with the firmly emphasized "Filius Patris," the audience overcame any initial hesitation about the appropriateness of applause between movements to acknowledge his masterful rendition.

The soprano (Kate Aldrich, an American) and the mezzo (Sabina Cvilak, who is Slovenian) next sang the melancholy and pleading Qui tollis peccata mundi ("You take away the sins of the world") in rich and closely harmonized duet. Then the bass had his solo (Quonium tu solus Sanctus "For you alone are holy"). This young man had a rich and thrilling voice, with volume to spare. It was quite exciting to hear him, and when he finished the piece that really challenges both the upper and lower ranges for a bass, Andrea, always the considerate and generous-hearted colleague, turned enthusiastically to him and personally applauded his effort and also whispered a brief word of praise.

Outside of Andrea’s solo aria, I find both the Cum Sancto Spiritu and the Credo to be the most compelling music in the work. The rhythm in the first is infectious and irresistible (Andrea yielded completely to it, keeping time with his whole body) as the chorus builds to a crescendo of grandly glorious sound that inevitably claims an audience response of ardent applause. In the Credo, there is a lovely point where there are alternating mini-duets between the mezzo and the bass and the soprano and the tenor. The soprano’s voice had a haunting, pure clarity that blended with and complemented Andrea’s plaintive elegance quite stunningly. I believe that this music might compel even the staunchest of infidels to reconsider their disbelief.

For all of the nearly raucous enthusiasm of the Credo, the incomprehensively slow, dirge-like organ solo that follows it, Preludio religioso, seems to last an eternity, although Jack confirmed that it was really about 10 or 12 minutes. Although some insisted that they found this interlude beautifully contemplative, I found myself internally debating "What was Rossini thinking???" Andrea took the opportunity of this vocal respite to ever-so-subtly attempt to adjust whatever had been creating some slight discomfort with his left heel and shoe. For several minutes, he kept me from falling into a hypnotic trance with the endlessly entertaining variations of discrete heel, pant, and stocking adjustments. On the basis of my doting observations of his many performances of Petite Messe, I can confirm without a doubt that this is a man who finds it supremely challenging to be completely still. I’m sure a quick review of my last two reports on this piece would yield an impressive description of the variety of gestures in the extensive secretive fidgeting repertoire at Andrea’s command: the fleeting bowtie check, the formal vest adjustment, the "where IS that music stand" check (which can easily be alternated with "is it still there since the last check 5 seconds ago"? or "could it be adjusted a bit lower?"), the surreptitious hand conducting, the rhythmic finger tap (varied with the rhythmic total hand on thigh tap), the pant leg smooth-over, the slight twitch of the noble Tuscan nose, the stray hair toss, the end-of-the-immediate-known-world tentative toe check, the impatient knee jiggle, the flick of an eyebrow arch, and on and on—all of which I am sure go completely unnoticed by the less obsessed and better-behaved patrons of the theater.

The solo of the soprano in O salutaris hostia is a dramatic highlight and musical showpiece of the mass. Ms. Cvilak was exquisite, and for the second time, Andrea responded with his enthusiastic applause. His three colleagues were fairly young singers at the beginning of their career, and it must have been a thrill to collaborate with two maestros of the professional stature of Placido Domingo and Andrea Bocelli. Domingo has devoted increasingly more time to conducting and developing young protégées through his opera programs and competitions. Throughout the evening, he seemed thoroughly absorbed in the challenging and pleasurable task of coordinating the accomplished artists onstage at his command to produce this masterpiece of sacred music.

When the final powerful notes of the profoundly moving mezzo solo Agnus Dei ("lamb of God") brought the complete work to a close with the words "dona nobis pacem" (‘Grant us peace"), it truly felt like we had received, for a sacred time, a blessing in the midst of our often troubled world. Warm applause flowed immediately from the audience, who clearly appreciated what they had just experienced and gradually rose to their feet in clusters here and there to affirm their approval. Onstage the singers reflected their personal satisfaction with freely exchanged smiles and clasped hands raised together above their heads in an exuberant expression of happy satisfaction. Andrea was broadly beaming, and he also turned round to personally thank the orchestra and chorus behind him with his own enthusiastic applause. After several minutes of this celebration, all left the stage, but quickly returned to acknowledge the undiminished applause, then left again.

At that point, as some in the audience were preparing to leave, unexpected activity onstage set up a quiet murmur that quickly grew to a delighted outburst as the assistant conductor returned with Andrea, and the audience realized that both were taking position for an encore! The easily recognizable strains of Panis Angelicus began. From our close perspective in the front row and to the side, I was particularly struck by Andrea’s profiled stance—ramrod straight, conveying an aura of confident pride, but also another dimension. He seemed deeply wrapped within the quiet reality of this sacred melody, personally lost in reverence for its prayerful power. His interpretation was strongly moving and flawlessly pure. Again, the audience response was grateful and warm. Andrea bowed gracefully and smiled beside the beaming conductor who was clearly happy for him. Once again, the two walked offstage while the applause continued. Then in quick succession several swift and unexpected movements occurred onstage and caused a hesitant shift in the level of applause—Andrea reappeared through the stage door arm-in-arm with Maestro Domingo who gripped a book of music and was followed by the assistant conductor, who mounted the podium while stagehands quickly placed two music stands for the singers. A murmur of momentary confusion rippled across the audience before sudden realization hit! A palpable electric thrill of sound surged through the hall as the audience exploded in stunned disbelief at the prospect of a surprise encore duet between Domingo and Bocelli. These two operatic icons stood momentarily silent onstage together, before they launched into what would certainly become the memory of a lifetime for the 2,000 plus who filled the house. The reaction from the crowd redoubled at the recognition of the first notes of what is arguably the most beautiful duet in the repertoire "Au fond du temple saint" from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.

Over the years, I have happily invested hours and hours to find the perfect words to capture the priceless moments Andrea has shared with us—but for this moment, words fail. The sheer energy of it just poured out and washed over us. Andrea sang so powerfully, with ALL his heart and soul flowing out from deep, deep down, his body taut with the all-encompassing focus on this joyful moment beside a much admired colleague. Domingo, thrilling us this time with a rich baritone, seemed to revel in the deliriously beautiful sound that the two were blending so magnificently. As long as I live, I will hold in my mind’s eye the sublime instant at the soaring climax of that intense partnership of interwoven heart, soul, and voice, the two men reciprocally embracing shoulders, when Andrea turned to that legendary comrade at his side and beamed a brilliant smile that seemed to say that nothing could ever tarnish this shining moment in any way. In the audience, 2,000 faces shone with 2,000 smiles. We sent a tidal wave of euphoria flooding over these two artists in gratitude for their priceless gift and our blessed good fortune in being present to receive it. At its height, I turned to take in the spectacle behind me and bask in awed amazement at the unanimous and jubilant approval…all of us on our feet and awash in the deafening accolade to repay, as best we could, the gift we had just received. IT WAS AWESOME!!!

Is it foolish—in a world that is so often dark and hostile in its capacity for devastating evil— to seek the heart and voice of one tenor as a precious antidote? Tonight, and for many nights to come, in quiet contemplation of this evening’s events, the bright memory within of one smile and one voice is all the answer I require.

by Cami McNamee

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