Crossover tenors are full-grown men in good clothes who often behave like naughty students. They do the things conventional instructors forbid high-minded tenors to do, like making decisions regarding repertoire and presentation that place them off the radar of stern commentators. Yet, by operating in the world of the middlebrow, the crossover tenors march on, recording and touring and going on Regis & Kathie Lee . Even in the unprecedentedly various current realm of recorded music, crossover tenors do things their way. Rules? Cred? Cool? Please.
The defining event of crossover tenordom was 1990′s Carreras, Domingo, Pa-varotti: In Concert , the album of a Rome concert by José Carreras, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. The multiplatinum release quickly became the “Three Tenors” phenomenon and, marketed under that name, spawned two more releases. The mostly Italian arias on the first Three Tenors album-Mr. Pavarotti’s big rendition of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” was the intensely sporting show-stopper-demonstrated something about the whole crossover tenor gig: that the job was not necessarily just madness, but a heroic continuation of the centuries-old Euro-American tradition of stars communicating in operatic style. The unconvinced still heard it as music for tony ice-cream parlors.
Mr. Carreras’ most recent offering is entitled Pure Passion ; it follows his earlier best-selling crossover bid, called merely Passion . Throughout most of it, Mr. Carreras trains his flexibility and tightly channeled intensity on transcriptions of melodies and solo passages, probably well known and loved by older listeners, from instrumental music. There are adaptations, outfitted with Italian lyrics, of Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat, Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave and even Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto . It’s a tack only a naughty crossover tenor might take, absent the extraordinary circumstance of new composition, which is not likely to be the case on Pure Passion . The composers range from Albéniz, Wagner and Schubert to-hold your breath, folks-”Sir Paul McCartney.” His piece is entitled “Celebration,” a fitfully rousing declaration of love and stability from Standing Stone , his large-scale work for chorus and orchestra.
To talk about crossover tenordom these days, though, is really to talk about one man, and his name is Andrea Bocelli, a bearded Tuscan lawyer who, a while back, switched pretty spectacularly to singing. Mr. Bocelli, who has sold more than 20 million records, broke into the United States in 1997 when his pop album Romanza , culled mostly from two previous Italian releases, appeared here. Early on, PBS championed him. Then a TV commercial for Bellagio Las Vegas Resorts began to play “Con te partirò,” Mr. Bocelli’s chart-topper, the kind of stirring song on which Italian songwriters and studio guys can put a uniquely torrid bourgeois touch. Two more albums, including Aria: The Opera Album , followed. Recently, Mr. Bocelli topped Barbara Walters’ ABC News.com Viewers’ Choice list of 1999′s most fascinating personalities, ahead of the Clintons, Bill Gates and the late John F. Kennedy Jr.
Sacred Arias , Mr. Bocelli’s new album, entered the Billboard charts at No. 31, the highest-debuting classical album in history, according to Mr. Bocelli’s label. Sacred Arias , which contains the Ave Maria of Charles Gounod as well as those of Franz Schubert and Giulio Caccini, plus those of versions of “Silent Night” and “Adeste Fideles,” is a conscientiously and warmly sung album, performed with the orchestra and chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. It is a strong and logical album, the work of a resourceful Italian pop singer with a universalist turn of mind who studied voice late in life, then applied everything-both the Bellagio and the Beethoven factors-to high-end sacred and seasonal repertoire. The collection shuns cheese, discovering kicks in the vivid, up-close sonics of modern pop recording.
An edge of pop fantasy, however appropriate or not, remains. That’s clear when you compare Mr. Bocelli’s recordings to those of José Cura, the alternately energetic and lulling Argentine whose recent album is Verismo , recorded with the Philharmonia Orchestra, which Mr. Cura also conducts. It’s unfair to compare Mr. Cura with Mr. Bocelli because the former has not come to this kind of work via Italian pop music, with its often intentional confusion of tenors and pop stars. But Mr. Cura, whose singing, sonics and presentation are aggressively operatic for someone even contemplating the idea of crossing over in the United States, puts “Musette! … Testa adorata” (from La Bohème ) up near the top of his collection, before going off strongly into Alfredo Catalani, Francesco Cilea, Pietro Mascagni and others. With Mr. Cura, the notion of the crossover tenor may just be evolving.