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Music Review: Béla Mavrák & The Stars of Buena Vista – ‘Un Sopio En El Aire’

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It sounds like an interesting experiment: back up the warm, relaxed tones of operatic tenor Béla Mavrák with Cuban rhythms played by top-notch Cuban musicians. But the result is a pretty-sounding CD with a mostly hollow center, and the problem is the selection of material.

Language is one issue: some of these selections are pop tunes sung in English, like “Amado Mio” and the Al Jolson standard “Anniversary Song,” and Mr. Mavrák—rich, buttery tone or no—isn’t thoroughly convincing singing some of them.

But the bigger problem is of a dual and somewhat contradictory nature. First, some of the selections are too lightweight for the treatment they get here, like the lilting melody of the wartime classic “Lili Marleen.” That’s one reason operatic voices and pop music often fail to gel, though Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli among others prove that they can, at times.

Second, there are times when for something to work you really do have to load on the schmaltz. And some of these tunes (like “Charade” and the Aznavour classic “She”) call for more of it than Mavrák and the ensemble give them; musicians and singer, one might speculate, were too careful not to let their styles clash, with a resulting loss of passion. One man’s apassionata is another man’s treacle, I suppose. But Mavrák is a tasteful singer, one who relies on his limpid tone and expressive modulation rather than histrionics, and the musicians restrain themselves similarly. This effectively renders the CD a pairing of equals, but makes much of it feel overly restrained. “Fonte de Amore,” for example, comes to life only in the final minute when the singer goes into his high register and passion starts to flow.

At times it works. The sparsely arranged “Dos Gardenias” trips lightly, and I actually liked the group’s take on “Besame Mucho,” a song with so much sentimental weight that this semi-restrained version strikes a nice balance. But mostly I found myself wishing for more showy, even aria-like pieces like “Damisela Encantadora” and “Torna a Surriento.”

The kind top opera singers get paid big bucks to sing.

Un Sopio En El Aire comes with a DVD with one fully produced music video, a couple of informal videos, and some not-very-in-depth interview footage of the musicians.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.