Despite our reputation as TV-watching, beer-swilling lowbrows, we Americans really do have an appreciation for art. We'll line up to see Vermeers and Van Goghs, make a Christmas ritual of the Nutcracker, and flock to Shakespeare (or, at least, Shakespeare in Love). But when we hear the word coloratura, we reach for our revolvers.
Americans, by and large, are not an opera-loving people. It hardly matters whether it's Verdi or Wagner, Mozart or Mascagni as far as the average joe is concerned, it's all over when the fat lady sings. Yet the most popular artist on the Billboard album charts is Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. Right now he has three albums in the top 200: 1997's Romanza, 1998's Aria: The Opera Album and Sogno, which, fueled by his performances at the Oscars and Grammys, recently debuted at an astounding No. 4.
How did he score so big in such an opera-phobic country? It's tempting to suggest that America's problem isn't with opera per se but with operatic sopranos those bellowing Brunhildas we remember from old New Yorker cartoons. Tenors are much easier to take, as the success of Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carerras' Three Tenors album made plain. When it comes to divas, we prefer Mariah Carey to Cecilia Bartoli.
Charlotte Church seems an exception to that rule. A 13-year-old Welsh soprano, she's a sensation in Europe, where her prodigious voice has made Voice of an Angel a million-seller. Stateside, Voice hit the charts at No. 28, an extraordinary feat for an unknown. (Both she and Bocelli were also helped by aggressive ad and publicity campaigns.) Granted, Voice isn't exactly an opera album it's mostly ballads and inspirational songs, with selections ranging from ''In Trutina'' to ''Danny Boy.'' But between her well-schooled vibrato and soberly symphonic accompaniment (provided by the orchestra and chorus of the Welsh National Opera), it's easy to see why she's being billed as a child genius on the order of Evgeny Kissin or Midori.
But it's going to take more than this album to convert me to Church. What marks a true prodigy isn't exceptional ability (which she clearly has) so much as an equal amount of musical maturity, and there's little evidence of that in Voice. Though she applies considerable skill to ''Ave Maria,'' navigating the high notes and difficult intervals with admirable ease, there's no sense of insight. All we get is a sweet tone and a childish innocence the female equivalent of a boy soprano.
Maturity is not an issue with Bocelli (indeed, the manliness of his voice is part of its appeal). Legitimacy, on the other hand, is. Though he's recorded arias by Verdi, Puccini, and the like, Bocelli is hardly an opera star. In fact, to the opera establishment, he's just a pop singer with a host of pretensions but not a particularly good voice.
There's some truth in that assessment. Although Bocelli is capable of luscious bel canto subtlety and muscular high notes, he's equally prone to artless phrasing and a muffled tone. ''Canto Della Terra,'' the first selection from Sogno, is a case in point. It opens quietly, then erupts dramatically as the orchestra swells and his voice sweeps upward. Bocelli is impressive when singing at full power but he seems lost when it comes time to underplay the melody, lacking the control necessary to give the soft notes the beautiful tone and bell-like clarity of the climaxes.
His sound and strengths work a lot better on ''The Prayer,'' his duet with Celine Dion from the Quest for Camelot soundtrack. It isn't just that the song's bite-size phrases and gently rising melody are significantly easier to handle than the average aria, it also helps that Bocelli takes his cues from Dion, matching her pace and only pouring on the power for the big climaxes.
But the best thing about ''The Prayer'' is that it seems divinely inspired, taking the thrilling aspects of the operatic vocabulary the full-throated high notes, the intertwining vocal lines and trans- lating them into the pop vernacular. Think of it as Puccini for Dummies, and you'll have a sense of why it's so appealing to pop fans (and so infuriating to opera snobs). Bocelli isn't the fourth tenor, destined to sing alongside Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carerras; at best, he's the new Mario Lanza, a tenor for listeners who wouldn't dare spend a night at the opera.
Voice of an Angel: C