Has Josh Groban ever had sex? Does he even think about it? The answer to both questions is probably yes, but the fact that they can even be raised says much about Groban and the suddenly popular genre Billboard has dubbed ”classical crossover.” With its emphasis on chaste love songs and arias, the new classical pop isn’t just the remade, cherubic face of adult contemporary, or AC (especially compared with bearded pre-Groban geezers like Andrea Bocelli and the Three Tenors). Seemingly pure and virginal, it’s the inevitable backlash against the overt, busting-out sexuality of the Top 40. Even when Groban and such peers as Charlotte Church venture into clothing-boutique techno or secular balladry, their music evokes an idealized vision of the world in which immaculate romance and undying love dominate; disappointment and heartache rarely enter. For those not in the mood for crotch pulling, nipple-shield flashing, and nasty beats, classical crossover aims to make pop sound unsullied again, as if rock never existed.
The success of albums like Groban’s ”Closer” (which hit No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart) was bound to make the industry sit up, take notice, and swoop down upon any comely acts featuring pristine, operatically trained voices. The veteran Norwegian star Sissel, one beneficiary of this vogue, first came to the attention of American record buyers when her lithesome soprano swooned in and out of the ”Titanic” soundtrack. On ”My Heart,” her second U.S. release, Chopin and Handel hang out backstage alongside schlock masters like Richard Marx and Andrew Lloyd Webber, each of whom is covered here.
As a way to make Sissel the female Groban, her various producers have stuffed the album with classical works both familiar (Schubert’s ”Ave Maria”) and not (pieces by Saint-Saens and Puccini). But despite the refined orchestrations around her, Sissel’s performances are showy, as if she can’t decide whether she’s auditioning for an opera or a Broadway musical. She reveals more personality when tackling AC (”Someone Like You,” which sounds like a less maniacally driven Celine Dion) and faux Celtic (”Angel Rays”). But ”My Heart” is typical of classical crossover: It feels like a little bit of everything but not much of anything.
It was only a matter of time before someone conceived of a group consisting entirely of would-be Grobans and Churches. That moment has arrived with Amici Forever, a shrewdly devised quintet of coiffed studs and delectably dressed women, each classically trained. Depending on one’s generation, they’re either the Monkees or the Spice Girls of their world.
Other than presentation, Amici Forever distinguish themselves by the way in which they want no part of classical crossover’s light-drenched serenity. Starting with the Handel-based ”Prayer in the Night,” on which they compete with stormy-night strings and drum machines, everything on their debut, ”The Opera Band,” is amped up. (The production often makes it hard to tell how well the quintet can sing, since they’re frequently drowned out.) Whether overemoting during an Italian-language cover of ”Unchained Melody” or turning Faure’s ”Whisper of Angels” into Lite FM fodder, the group leaves nothing to chance or subtlety. Digesting ”The Opera Band” is akin to hearing one turbulent finale after another – opera McNuggets, with all recitatives excised. As with Sissel’s disc, the album almost makes one nostalgic for the vulgarities of a Super Bowl halftime show.