“Apologies, my English is not so good,” Andrea Bocelli tells a virtual capacity crowd at Leeds’s First Direct Arena at the very tail-end of his performance.
The famed tenor is being modest – his grasp of a second language is actually better than quite a few people who would profess it to be their first. Nonetheless, it is the first time he has addressed his audience across a two-act show – and all in service of an anecdotal punchline, no less. “I had a problem before I came on,” he says with a proverbial nudge-nudge in his tone. “I went to my dressing room, put on my jacket – and there were no pants.” A very generous member of his orchestra – a flautist, it appears – subbed in with a spare pair of trousers at the last minute, to ensure that the Italian does not have to contend with a stiff breeze on a Saturday night.
Whether he would have appeared in his briefs or not however, it’s highly unlikely they would have distracted from the spectacle of the 61-year-old’s voice. Celine Dion once said that God would “sound a lot like Andrea” if he sang, and she’s not wrong.
Though his performance – an ensemble effort backed up with additional vocal solo spots, dancers and wild flute interludes that replicate the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – is a stop-start affair, with frequent departures from the stage for rest, it is never better than when he is behind the microphone.
It’s fair to say that he’s having a cultural moment too; he was in the singles charts not too long ago with a duet of Ed Sheeran’s Perfect with the man himself, and his record Si went to number one in the UK and the USA last year. Sheeran will be among one of several big names attached to a diamond edition of the record crammed with new collaborators – though the only additional star wattage on this evening comes from Beverley Knight, who gives a delicate rendition of her own Shoulda Coulda Woulda as an amuse-bouche late on.
But in the here and now, Bocelli is magnificent – from an opening salvo of Verdi classics through to a spine-tingling version of Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling in Love. Throughout it all, whenever he steps up, it is clear that this is one of the finest opera recitals in the business, if not the best.
If losing his sight at the age of 12 has amplified his other senses, he has a preternatural vocal command that draws applause every time. By the time he bows out with his customary Time to Say Goodbye, he waves before pausing at the edge of the stage, accompanied by his conductor, arm-in-arm. Then the pair turn back, and deliver Nessun dorma, in all its fantastic glory. There’s not a dry handkerchief in the house.