Hayley Westenra is one of Australia’s better-known musical exports. With her high soprano voice and young age, she’s managed to make a name for herself as a singer and is often put side by side with the likes of Sarah Brightman and Celtic Woman, ensemble with which she toured during their second concert production.
I personally had my doubts when I first read about Westenra creating an album along with Ennio Morricone, and I had my reasons to. Westenra’s last international, non-themed album had been 2005’s “Oddysey”, and since then we had been treated to either themed releases (“Treasure”/“Celtic Treasure” and “Winter Magic”) and localized releases that still attempted to follow an overall theme (“Hayley sings Japanese songs”) all of which, though beautiful, ultimately failed somewhere along the way of building an ambience around the listener, thus creating albums where Westenra’s vocal prowess, though amazing as always, was dragged down by a rather poor selection of songs that didn’t quite make the albums feel as such.
However, I was wrong to worry much about this album. Morricone, rather than creating an album around a theme, gave Westenra several of his better-known compositions for her to sing or harmonize to, thus creating an album where both Westenra’s beautiful soprano voice and Morricone’s uplifting songs are merged into one, thus turning Westenra into an instrument playing Morricone’s music.
And it works, beautifully so. From the very beginning (“Gabriel’s Oboe”, a melody that’s best known as “Nella Fantasia” with English lyrics), the table is set for a classical-inspired album, probably the most classical/melodic work Westenra has presented in album form to date.
Musically, the execution of the pieces herein presented is nothing short of flawless – Each of the pieces, all of them previously composed by Morricone for different uses, shines on its own showing just how much of a hit it was to place Westenra and Morricone together, and I don’t think I had ever before heard anyone singing any of the arias presented in this album better than Westenra does – It’s not just her delivery, it’s the way her voice seems to fit the songs and arrangements perfectly to showcase the music as what it is (Contemporary classical music), as opposed to the plan classical approach most singers take when approaching such compositions. In this album, the voice mixes up with the instruments beautifully, managing to actually create an ambient around the listener in a way Westenra hadn’t been able to do since 2005’s “Odyssey”.
Lyrically, the album doesn’t really follow suit with the depth of some of Westenra’s earlier work, though lyrics have never been her strong. After all, she doesn’t compose her songs and she doesn’t write the lyrics to it, Westenra is known for being a performer rather than a composer and her role as such is amazing enough to keep anyone from criticizing it. The lyrics are beautiful in general, though nothing outside of what you’d expect for the genre, but the vocal delivery and instrumental arrangements are so spot-on that they manage to convey the feeling of what’s being said by the mere use of melody – Westenra may as well have vocalized through the whole album, without ever singing a word, and the album wouldn’t have lost much. This album is a voyage through melody rather than through lyrics, and it works perfectly as such.
For all of its strengths, however, there’s one thing in this album that got to bother me at points, and that is Westenra’s delivery of some of the songs in Italian. Though musically they’re excellent, the pronunciation tends to come out rather strangely, as if she were trying to fake an accent that’s just not meant to be there, turning her Italian pronunciation into somewhat robotic tones reminiscent of the pronunciation of English Mexican stereotypes are generally thought to have, where all vowels are pronounced with stronger emphasis than required. The best example of this issue in the album is “Metti Una Sera A Cena”, where the way Westenra sings it, with a forced attempt at an Italian accent that makes the delivery inherently flawed. “Lezione Di Musica” also falls into this category, though it manages to avoid the awkwardness just barely by having lyrics that only relate to musical notation rather than properly crafted Italian lyrics. Other Italian songs in this record (And there are several more), however, fare much better than these two; generally keeping a good level of pronunciation that manages to keep the music flowing with her voice.
In the end, “Paradiso” is potentially the best piece of work Westenra has presented in over half a decade and the first one since “Odyssey” that manages to grasp me and make me fall in love with it from the first listen. The hit-or-miss enterprise that recording an album based on a composer alone turned into quite the hit, and I believe this might as well be Westenra’s best work to date. Taking that into account and mixing it with the fact that this album holds the freshest renditions I’ve heard of most of its compositions (Yes, beating even Brightman’s original version of “Nella Fantasia”), I can’t do anything other than recommend this album as potentially one of the best classical-inspired works I’ve heard.
Final review score: 4.5/5
Availability: The album is currently available on physical and digital form from Amazon.com
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