Jackie Evancho has a pretty voice: That is indisputable. The 17-year-old (as of this week) first came to national attention seven years ago on America's Got Talent, where her rendition of the Puccini aria "O Mio Babbino Caro" revealed a voice matured far beyond her decade of existence. It has grown since then, with a powerful chest register and a head voice that suggests a skater gliding effortlessly over a frozen lake. Despite all her technical mastery, something seems to be missing at the foundation of her debut performance at the Café Carlyle.
She starts the program with a frosty rendition of Coldplay's "Viva La Vida," a conservative choice meant to look like a bold one. "That may be the first time Coldplay has been performed at the Carlyle," the late millennial tells us, signaling her youth.
Of course, Evancho is best known for her classically trained voice, which she shows off on a high-flying rendition of Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" and Lucio Dalla's achingly emotional "Caruso": "This is a song about a man looking back on his life from his death bed," she tells us, "but let's pretend it's about a first date."
We admire Evancho for stretching to perform songs about subjects with which she has very little personal experience, while at the same time recognizing that there isn't much depth to her consistently gorgeous interpretations. Her version of "Over the Rainbow" soars, but it has none of the longing of a young girl languishing on a farm in Kansas (it is being sung by a young girl headlining the Café Carlyle, after all). Similarly, her version of the Bergman-Hamlisch standard, "The Way We Were" (made famous by Barbra Streisand), hits all the right notes without ever conjuring the pain undergirding the lyrics.
Tellingly, her interpretations of Think of Me and The Music of the Night from Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera are the strongest of the evening, but those only ever required a cosmetic sheen and a superficial understanding of human relationships, which Evancho happily delivers.
Her banter between songs is poised and professional, devoid of the "umms" and "likes" one expects from Americans her age. Complete with stagey arm gestures and canned jokes, it also smacks of something that has been rehearsed to death, an A-minus presentation in speech class that checks off all the boxes without ever having that wow factor that so often comes in the form of genuine vulnerability.
Evancho seems to understand her problem and has composed an original song about it, "Pedestal," which she generously shares with the audience at the Carlyle. It's a song about a pretty doll on a pedestal who implores all who will listen to free her. "You should have known it wouldn't last," she warns us, letting us know that the fantasy of an angelic child with the voice of an adult woman was always someone else's dream, not hers. Roll your eyes at the adolescent sentiment, but it is the most honest song of the night.
Evancho offers us a clear view of herself at this point in her career: a Snapchat of the artist as a young woman, if you will. She has already conquered her instrument (often the more difficult task), which leaves the part that usually comes easier for most singers: She needs to actually go out and experience the subjects about which she sings. She needs to make a mess, get in trouble, and be utterly, unapologetically selfish for a while. Once she does that, we look forward to hearing her revisit these songs, perhaps in 10 years. That's when her singing will cease to be merely pretty, and will become profoundly beautiful.
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