Andrea Bocelli has gotten some flack for his attempt to bring Classical music into the pop market, but I consider him a positive force in the business and in culture in general. Most of the people who go after him are really trying on some level to keep Classical music a niche market so they can use it as a status symbol, so their opinions are suspect at best.
More than anything else, Bocelli reminds me of a singing Liberace…minus the flamboyant image, of course. But like Liberace, he repackages Classical music into a form that is easily digestible for the general public, and like Liberace he has received a great deal of undeserved scorn in spite of being, by all ordinary standards, an exceptionally gifted musician. And yes, Bocelli isn’t Pavarotti or Domingo, just as Liberace wasn’t Glenn Gould, but it hardly seems fair (or intellectually honest) to make that comparison when you remember that the vast majority of other legit opera singers aren’t remotely on the level of those giants either.
That said, there are times when Bocelli’s willingness to accommodate his mainstream audiences can get a bit excessive, and this album is arguably one of those times. Even many of his fans complained about his singing tired Christmas novelty standards in what seemed like an attempt to pander to the mainstream market, instead of seeking out more esoteric and interesting choices. Granted, this is generally the standard strategy followed by popular singers who record Christmas albums, but given the rich vein of Classical and Semiclassical Christmas music Bocelli had to draw on, the song selection should have been more interesting than it is here.
There are a fair number of legitimate classical hymns performed here, such as “Angels We Have Heard On High”, “Adestes Fideles”, and “Silent Night”, and they certainly show off Bocelli’s voice nicely, but even they seem a little too obvious…Bocelli should arguably have chosen more items like “Caru Geso Bambino”, a lovely Italian Christmas hymn not much known in the U.S., for this album, instead of going almost entirely with the overexposed Christmas chestnuts.
The lead single from this album, a rendition of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”, isn’t the worst performance of this overexposed classic I’ve heard, but the switch from English to Italian mid-song seems gimmicky and distracting. And items like “Jingle Bells” (taken from the album’s accompanying TV special, where he performed it with the Muppets) or “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” are simply unworthy of Bocelli’s talent. To his credit, he tries to treat them with the respect he gives to the rest of his material, but this kind of material neither deserves nor rewards that kind of respect, so the results just sound like an oversung embarrassment.
On top of that, there are three duets here with singers from entirely different genres…a jazzy “The Christmas Song” with Natalie Cole, a heavily Pop-flavored “What Child Is This?” with Mary J. Blige, and a Country-style “Blue Christmas” with Reba McEntire…and none of them is entirely successful. Bocelli’s attempts to modulate his sound to fit these different genres just sound awkward and tentative, like even he knew this was a bad idea, and he pairs badly with Blige’s bluesy Soul contralto and McEntire’s Country twang.
But there are a few glorious moments that justify this album’s existence. “The Lord’s Prayer”, performed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, is magnificent, with Bocelli performing with incredible feeling and the legendary choir providing a suitably epic and weighty backdrop. This album also features the first studio recording of Bocelli singing “I Believe”, which he reportedly performed for the Pope at one point and which has become one of his signature items. And “God Bless Us Everyone”, the theme song from the 2009 film version of A Christmas Carol, is an absolutely amazing song that makes for a powerfully inspirational and gloriously satisfying album closer.
Overall, there are much better Bocelli recordings out there if you’re just starting to explore his work. This particular album tends to emphasize his worst habits, and he’s usually much more respectable than this. That said, this album does definitely have its moments, and while it doesn’t make for a very good first impression of Bocelli, it’s worth picking up somewhere along the way, if only just for “I Believe”, “God Bless Us Everyone”, and “The Lord’s Prayer”.