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Andrea Bocelli

Popular opera singer.

Saturday night in HSBC Arena.

Andrea Bocelli rolled into HSBC Arena on Saturday night with a big orchestra, a sprightly conductor, a blond violinist, a brunet soprano and, it was rumored, a 21-year-old girlfriend.

A sizable crowd turned out to see him. It was a disparate group, ranging from opera fans picking apart and criticizing Bocelli's voice (but heck, they were there, weren't they?) to die-hard Bocelli fans, one of whom passed on the rumor about the girlfriend. (She had seen her, she said, on a Dutch Web site devoted to Bocelli.)

HSBC Arena felt strangely dressed up for the occasion. Walking in, one heard not bellows of "Go, Sabres!" but the slow, sweet strains of a Chopin waltz. It was an amazing spectacle, too, to see thousands of people sitting quietly listening to the overture to Verdi's "La Forza Del Destino," which began the night. "Don't hurt yourself in the mosh pit," someone cracked.

Whenever Bocelli was on stage, his face appeared on a giant video screen. Handsome and hearty, he now sports a distinguished touch of gray.

He was so heavily amplified that after he ended a note, you could hear it echoing from the rear of the arena. It didn't seem, however, as if listeners felt distanced by the electronic equipment.

The ambitious program featured more straight-up opera arias than many might have anticipated. Bocelli sang "E lucevan le stelle" from "Tosca," and Maria Luigia Borsi, an appealing, emotive Italian soprano, joined him for "Gia nella notte densa" from "Otello," "O soave fanciulla" from "La Boheme" and the famous Act 1 duet from "La Traviata."

In between came light classics like "Aranjuez," arranged from a famous Rodrigo guitar piece, which Bocelli belted with Spanish spirit; Gounod's "Panis Angelicus"; and "Sogno d'Amore," which was derived from Liszt.

Then, of course, there was "O sole mio." And "My Way," an encore that drove the crowd wild.

There are a lot of criticisms one can make about Bocelli's voice. His high notes can be sweet, but Bocelli tends to belt, especially when he's singing in lower registers. Sometimes his phrasing makes no sense. When he was singing the "La Boheme" duet with Borsi, he caused a brief mix-up when he usurped one of her lines.

But who cares? Bocelli has a definite animal magnetism. There are those sweet high notes, a couple of which were absolutely stunning. There's something touching about him, too, an appealing earthiness. You can imagine him belting songs in a bar, just for the fun of it.

Perhaps most impressively, he draws hordes of happy people into HSBC Arena -- the hockey arena, for heaven's sake -- and there they are, listening to Verdi, Puccini and Gounod.

I'll give him a standing ovation just for that.


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