Happiness has been scarce in the home of Philadelphia's Sixers and Flyers lately, but Saturday's sumptuous concert at the Wells Fargo Center by Italian master vocalist Andrea Bocelli, 57, delivered discernible bliss to 18,000-plus music lovers. (The 88-year-old next to me erupted with repeated approving bravos.)
Many things aligned for an exceptional evening: Bocelli's first full area concert in a decade (two well-balanced sets); having the superb 65-piece Philly Pops backing him; touring for his 2015 CD, Cinema, wherein he applies his celebrated Tuscan tenor to great movie songs; and the guest sopranos, each exquisite: Aida Garifullina of Tatarstan, Russia, who enthralled with Gounod's "Je Veux Vivre"; and Trinidadian American Heather Headley, whose unique "Over the Rainbow" was a highlight.
Other time-and-space confluences enriched things. Fitting for the season - and on the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the 1531 New World apparition of the Virgin Mary as an indigenous Mexican woman - Bocelli tenderly sang Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria" early in the first set. (The second, showcasing Cinema, had Bocelli intoning a luminous, softly Italian-accented "Maria," from West Side Story). On another religious note, Bocelli's first of few spoken words noted "the beautiful memory I have of this city" - his performance in September for Pope Francis.
Also, as it was Frank Sinatra's 100th birthday, Bocelli dedicated "Moon River" - the wistful classic from the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's and a signature song of Andy Williams - to Sinatra's arguably superior 1964 version, because, he said, "I met the melody in the singing of his voice." And he did a South Philadelphia shout-out to Mario Lanza before his excellent cover of Lanza's "Be My Love" from the 1950 flick The Toast of New Orleans.
And then there was that climactic concert-closing number, about a guy (Calaf) who's hot for a coldhearted minx (Turandot). He agrees to a deal where he gets his chance with her if he can answer her three riddles by dawn; if not, she has him beheaded. No, not a lugubrious death-metal ditty, but Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" ("Nobody Sleeps"), the mid-1920s aria that's among the most popular tenor vehicles ever. Bocelli sang it comfortably, mastering all aspects of tone to express Calaf's determination, tinged with anguish, as he awaits the morning's triple test.