What better match for one of the world’s most astonishing concert settings than one of the world’s most astonishing artists?
AlUla, an ancient desert region in northern Saudi Arabia, is emerging as a fertile cultural oasis. Hegra, its stunning ancient city and the country’s first Unesco world heritage site, was erected in the first century BCE by the Nabataean kingdom. Of the thousands of tombs, at least 100 are embellished with elaborate carved facades, a signature of the craftsmen who long ago departed the stage.
The centuries-old landscape alone makes AlUla a notable destination. The new artistic talents arriving on the scene are adding their own drama.
On Thursday, Andrea Bocelli became the first artist to perform at Hegra – at least, the first for two thousand years or so. In fact, it was the Bocellis. For the first time, Andrea brought on stage with him two of his children together, Matteo, 24, and Virginia, just nine years old.
“It was a big emotion for me, very beautiful to sing with them,” Bocelli said in an interview with The Independent.
If Bocelli was excited by having his children on stage, and to sing what he termed “beautiful romances”, he was stunned too by his surroundings. He performed to an audience of just 300 against a spectacular backdrop: the 20 carved tombs of Al Khuraymat. Archaeologists say this cluster presents some of the best-preserved tombs in the city of Hegra, with its distinctive feature of Khuraymat, the elegant gynosphinxes – spirit guardians with women’s heads, lions’ bodies and wings – adorning the corners of pediments.
“It is amazing,” said the Italian, 62, who was born near Pisa. While Hegra is truly a first, Bocelli has sung before in AlUla, at the Maraya Concert Hall, mirrored on the outside like a modern-day mirage. “It is very emotional because the place is so very different. Its culture is very far from our culture.”
If the site is remarkable, so too is Bocelli’s own story. Born with congenital glaucoma, he has been blind since a footballing accident at the age of 12. The handicap has not prevented the tenor’s rise to become one of the most acclaimed and popular opera singers in the world. He has sold over 75 million albums, with his popularity stretching beyond the world of opera to a much larger audience with his crossover albums of lighter classics and popular songs, taking classical music to the top of the pop charts.
Bocelli was Oscar-nominated for his duet with Celine Dion for the Golden Globe-winning song “The Prayer”, for the film Quest for Camelot. Dion has remarked: “If God would have a singing voice, He must sound a lot like Andrea Bocelli.”
His good looks are also a part of his appeal, with People magazine naming him one of the world’s 50 most beautiful people.
Although Bocelli is blind, his ability to experience an atmosphere is remarkable, and he did so last night. “Yes, I can perceive it,” he said. “I sense a special atmosphere. It is so very different to the usual places where I perform.
“The tombs and the ancient city are special, of course. But there is also an immense desert. A place where man can think more deeply.”
As with his singing, Bocelli’s speech has unmistakable poetic rhythms and lyricism, his choice of language often poignant.
I asked how the year of Covid had been for him, with the inevitable restrictions on his global touring. “It was painful,” he said, “but it was also one of the best periods of my life as I could spend so much time with my family. But because of what was happening, I was not tranquil in my heart.”
The concert was performed in front of a restricted audience because of Covid-19 social distancing measures, but was also streamed on the maestro’s YouTube channel with a potential audience of millions, such is his fanbase.
Bocelli and his daughter Virginia sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, and the multi-talented family showed off their musical prowess with Bocelli swapping instruments throughout the performance. Songs included favourites from Puccini, hits from the artist’s most recent album, Believe, as well as songs from The Greatest Showman and Carousel, and his usual encore, “Time to Say Goodbye”.
The singer was joined by musicians from the Arabian Philharmonic and special guests: the American singer Loren Allred, Andrea’s son Matteo Bocelli, and the soprano Francesca Maionchi, with Eugene Kohn at the piano.
Bocelli is famously said to be able to play any instrument he puts his hands on. Those who were there to witness his arrival at AlUla International Airport can vouch for this, after the Italian visitor played a rendition of “O Sole Mio” on the qanun, or zither.
The world’s most popular tenor was the perfect choice to introduce live performance to Hegra, in his third in Saudi Arabia. And his emotion seems to have been reciprocated by the local people.
“The people here are so pleased to have tourists coming now,” he told me. “If you come across a shepherd, they will talk to you. They are so glad to be seeing people. I am confident other stars will now come here. It is important the culture becomes wider. It’s always very important to know better each other in the world.”