To the Stars: Sarah Brightman – Christmas in Vienna V

Just in time for the holidays comes Sarah Brightman’s appearance in the 1998 recording  Christmas in Vienna V. Depending on your mileage with respect to Christmas music, this will either be a treat or a terrible, terrible thing.

The Frank Peterson-produced record really is a mess, from a production standpoint and from a musical standpoint. Brightman sings along with Placido Domingo, Helmut Lotti and Riccardo Cocciante. In terms of this album, our soprano from the stars is the best of the bunch. In terms of her recordings in general, this is one of the weakest – and that’s being kind.

For starters, the mesh of voices is dreadful. Every singer does his or her own thing, which can give the impression that we’re listening to a chain of wailing tomcats on a ledge somewhere.

Domingo is the Spanish tenor with the booming voice, of course. His presence seems to dominate every song he sings, so when he’s pitted with Brightman he tends to drown her out. There’s very little subtlety to his tone, with the exception of “Silent Night” perhaps, and that harms the overall recording.

Lotti is a Flemish Belgian tenor who actually was an Elvis impersonator. It shows. He sang a variety of Latin recordings, along with the African-themed Out of Africa record that he recorded in South Africa, but really started to make hay when he “crossed over” into classical music. At times, Lotti has a wavering tone that really comes off as silly (“Adeste Fideles”).

Cocciante is friends with Domingo. The Italian singer-songwriter and composer doesn’t have much of a career to speak for and his raspy, growly textures get weirder and weirder as the album progresses. He is tolerable as a sort of Italian Tom Waits on “Tu scendi dalle stele,” but things get really bad when he pairs with his pal on “Walking in the Air.” He also looks distinctively like Bilbo Baggins.

When those singers are jammed under the Christmas tent with Brightman, something horrible happens. The medley that forms the thrust of the record features more than a few frighteningly bad moments, like the blistering “Christmas is Here Again” that can’t seem to find its tempo to the rotten hysterics of “Another Christmas Morning.”

By the time things transition to the inexcusable and inexplicable “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” Jolly Saint Nick is probably stumbling around the North Pole in search of a noose.

That doesn’t even begin to touch the creepy children’s choir (see the video) or Steven Mercurio’s manic conducting of the Wiener Symphoniker, which seems to have drummer that is just out of his bloody mind.

Brightman tries and she even gets released by Domingo to sing the Bee Gees’ “First of May,” but there’s only so much she can do in the midst of this hodgepodge of strangeness. There’s a video of Christmas in Vienna V and a CD version available, the latter of which features a lovely studio version of the aforementioned “First of May.” The video really is the best way to experience the theatre of the weird, plus Brightman’s looking pretty nice so that’s an added bonus.

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