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Concert review: Andrea Bocelli tells Utah crowd, 'I will never forget your affection.' Mr. Bocelli, the feeling's mutual

SALT LAKE CITY — It was his first public performance in Salt Lake City, and Andrea Bocelli held nothing back.

Donning a suit topped with a bright blue jacket and black bow tie, the 60-year-old Italian tenor took the stage and immediately illustrated one thing to his Utah fans: While his hair may be a dignified silver, the vocal prowess that popularized him more than 20 years ago is as strong as ever.

Andrea Bocelli performs at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018.
Andrea Bocelli performs at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018.
Qiling Wang, Deseret News

Although backed by a full orchestra and choir, Bocelli sang the first few notes of his performance without accompaniment. He stood still as a statue, poised with his arms at his side. With his eyes shut tight, the expression was in his eyebrows — little crescendos and decrescendos that raised as he held onto a note and lowered as he completed a phrase. He must have held the final note of his opening number for at least 10 seconds — and it would be the first of many long, impressive notes to linger throughout Vivint Arena Thursday evening.

Larisa Martinez performs during Andrea Bocelli's concert at Vivint  Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018.
Larisa Martinez performs during Andrea Bocelli's concert at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018.
Qiling Wang, Deseret News

The arena’s aesthetics reflected the momentous occasion. Red carpet covered the wide floor, transforming the nearly 20,000-seat arena into an opera house — a fitting setting as Bocelli performed works from composers including Giacomo Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi. And with Thursday’s performance marking Bocelli’s first public appearance in Salt Lake City, the artist didn’t set aside time for chitchat. He was there to sing.

Bocelli’s two-hour performance (including a 20-minute intermission) was a spectacle — one that more than compensated for his lengthy absence in Utah. The Logan-based American Festival Chorus and Orchestra, founded in 2008 by former Mormon Tabernacle Choir director Craig Jessop, added depth to Bocelli’s soaring notes. And soprano Larisa Martinez was the tenor’s perfect counterpart. The pair’s voices interlocked as they sang several duets, the highlight being the well-known aria “La donna e mobile” from Verdi’s opera “Rigoletto” — one of the more familiar pieces of the first half. During one duet, Martinez even provided comedic relief as she turned toward Bocelli with a slight grin, as if to say, “How long are you planning on holding this note for?” Bocelli smiled as he heard the audience laugh.

Andrea Bocelli is introduced to the stage at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018.
Andrea Bocelli is introduced to the stage at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018.
Qiling Wang, Deseret News
Larisa Martinez performs during Andrea Bocelli's concert at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018.
Larisa Martinez performs during Andrea Bocelli's concert at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018.
Qiling Wang, Deseret News

In between numbers, music director Eugene Kohn tenderly ushered Bocelli on and off the stage, allowing for Martinez and other equal-to-the-task guest artists to take the spotlight. Violinist extraordinaire Caroline Campbelladded to the spectacle with a unique medley that combined Camille Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” with Hans Zimmer’s popular “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme — passionately performed on her 18th-century violin.

The concert’s second half saw more familiar pieces. Following the orchestra's hearty take on "Stars and Stripes Forever,” Bocelli took the stage to sing his first English number of the night: “Maria” from “West Side Story.” His voice swelled as he sang the name, accompanied by the orchestra and dancers Brittany O’Connor and Jordi Caballero, whose mesmerizing feats seemed almost acrobatic at times.

For the entire performance, Bocelli stood in just one place onstage. His arms never left his side. And yet, it was clear the tenor was engulfed in the music. During duets with Martinez, he silently mouthed the words to her solos, and when his voice grew in intensity, his face shook from the resounding vibrato. And occasionally, when someone from the crowd shouted out an expression of affection, Bocelli was quick to smile. He didn’t need grand gestures to get his point across.

Andrea Bocelli performs at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018.
Andrea Bocelli performs at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018.
Qiling Wang, Deseret News

During this second half, Bocelli introduced music from his latest album “Si” — his first album of all-new music in 14 years. With Martinez at his side, the pair performed the haunting “Ave Maria Pietas” from the new album, a song that takes most of the original words from the Catholic prayer “Ave Maria” but changes the order and uses a new tune. From there, Bocelli launched into the classic version of “Ave Maria” — complete with dancers and a lovely violin solo from Campbell. Backed by the full choir and orchestra, Bocelli then performed “Adeste fideles” (“O Come, All Ye Faithful”) — a rendition that would have been an appropriate sendoff into the holiday season.

But Bocelli wasn’t done yet. In fact, with only a few numbers left to go, the tenor introduced yet another guest artist, former “American Idol” contestant and powerhouse vocalist Pia Toscano. The singer channeled her inner Celine Dion with her rendition of “All By Myself,” giving all in the crowd hope for a performance of “The Prayer” — Bocelli’s duet with Dion that earned him a Grammy nomination in 2000.

It came. But first, Bocelli had a few words for his adoring fans in Utah. It was as if he felt he’d made up for his long absence and could finally use his voice for something other than singing.

Mentioning his recording of “The Lord’s Prayer” nearly 10 years ago with The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square — then the Mormon Tabernacle Choir — Bocelli told the appreciative crowd, “It’s the first time that I sing here in Salt Lake City. And I will never forget your affection. Thank you for this.”

The feeling was mutual. The crowd’s affection and cries of “Bravo!” led to three encores, a true trifecta: “The Prayer,” “Time to Say Goodbye” and “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s opera “Turandot.” Each number led to a standing ovation, and when it was all said and done, it appeared no one in attendance was ready to say goodbye — including Bocelli, who couldn't stop waving to his fans.

And if there were any fans at the concert upset with the singer for neglecting the Beehive State for so long, Bocelli's moving performance was a heartfelt apology.

Let's just hope he won't wait as long for his next one.

Andrea Bocelli performs at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018.
Andrea Bocelli performs at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018.
Qiling Wang, Deseret News