A Celine Dion concert is a battlefield.
“The Power of Love” that Dion sings about is a force measured in megatons. The 51-year-old Canadian pop star catapults the word “love” out into the arena like a cauldron of flaming oil to immolate an army of unspecified foes and protect our collective heart. She is the champion, my friends.
If that sounds like I’m overstating things, well, come on, you’ve heard the lady sing. Overstatement is her all. Every diva goes big, of course, but there are so many forms of excess: Some emphasize the size of their emotional bounty, some plumb its depths, some burnish its beauty, some ornament its glamour. Dion’s voice is as finely honed as an ax against a grindstone—though far richer in timbre and greater in range, its martial quality has as much in common with the striving keen of a metal singer than the expansive blossoming of a gospel voice.
At Dion’s Target Center appearance Friday night, her first Twin Cities show in 11 years, her voice betrayed no evidence of strain and hadn’t lost a volt since her Clinton-era days of commercial dominance. And she presented her music on the spectacular scale you’d expect: There were four costume changes, probably three times as many key changes, and 17 other musicians. No chintzy synths imitating strings or horns here—nothing but the genuine article for Madame. Her kilted guitarist even produced a recorder to tweet away on at an appropriate time.
For a performer so emotionally florid, though, there’s an austerity at the core of Dion’s music that keeps her mostly clear of camp. Yes, the ba-da-ba-da-da-BOOM chorus of her opening number, “It's All Coming Back to Me Now,” swoops upward so stirringly it could be about the storming of the Bastille. But that one was written and produced by Meat Loaf collaborator Jim Steinman, and up against the more typically kitschy Steinmanic arrangement of, say, “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Dion practically comes off as Philip Glass.
Which isn’t to say Dion has no sense of humor. After the Québécois accent she’s assiduously maintained stumbled over an English phrase and making a mock-frustrated “bl-bl-bl-bl” noise with her lips, she sat down with a glass of water and suggested, “Let’s chill.” When she seductively unzipped and removed two white sleeves that were voluminously poofy enough to each conceal a toddler or a week’s worth of groceries, she told us, “That’s all I’m taking off.” And after one mighty run of notes elicited cheers, she shrugged, “That’s not so hard,” then immediately switched back into sincerity mode: “I do appreciate it though.”
Onstage, Dion is an odd being. Charmingly, she’s no natural, and both her moments of grand prepossession and feigned intimacy have a studied quality, which goes double for suggestive moments like when she told us, “You’re a little too hot to handle.” Dion’s arsenal of dramatic poses, including a fiercely clenched jaw, called to mind a cocky matador, especially now that her body mass has been distilled to pure muscle. (Oh yeah, did I mention that Celine Dion is buff as hell now? Damn.)
To the casual fan (or even this attentive non-fan), remembering individual songs after a Dion show can be like trying to recall a specific firework from a display you just watched, but let’s give it a shot. One of her backup singers joined her for the Disney ballad “Beauty and the Beast,” while for “My Prayer,” which she’d recorded as duet with Andrea Bocelli, Dion handled the operatics herself, and with fully rounded aplomb.
A less impressive genre move was the heavy-breathing blues approximation “Tous les blues sont écrits pour toi,” which called to mind not the Mississippi Delta but Red Shoe Diaries, right down to the sleazy saxophone, the sort of musical cue a ’90s late-night cable movie would employ to let you know that Eric Roberts was about to get laid.
Dion’s seriousness demands that you take high schmaltz at face value, even when squaring off against such a monument to self-pity like Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself,” which people were mocking (often affectionately) long before it started inspiring memes of sad kitties and sadder James Van Der Beeks.
And she closed with a medley that only a star who’d done a Vegas residency could imagine: “Let's Dance” into “Another One Bites the Dust” into “Kiss” (not a nod to Prince’s hometown—she includes that everywhere), then on Ike & Tina’s “River Deep, Mountain High” and, at last, “Lady Marmalade” en français. She did it all in a skintight silver suit, like a woman born too late to host her own ’70s variety show making up for lost time. It could not have been more ridiculous, but, honestly, it probably should have been.
The lighting design was, even for a show of this scale, tremendous. During “Courage,” the title track of her upcoming album, images of planetary immolation and possible eco-destruction and meteorological extremes swirled dramatically behind her. But she saved the best bit of stage trickery for last.
For the obligatory encore of “My Heart Will Go On,” Dion re-emerged in a huge, frosty white gown, appearing more iceberg than Titanic. At the climax, a squadron of tiny illuminated drones hovered above her like a fairy fleet that Glinda the Good Witch might dispatch to do her bidding instead of flying monkeys. And when all but one had dimmed and Dion raised her arm as though to set that very last twinkling sprite free, the moment, like so much else that night, didn’t so much overcome whatever skepticism about her romantic excesses you (OK, I) might still harbor as render that skepticism beside the point.
But that was not the end: After bidding good night to us via a swath of kindly platitudes, Dion closed with John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a song with as much baggage as “All By Myself.” Following a night suffused with whatever the Francophone equivalent of sturm und drang is, its message of “living life in peace” settled over the arena as an unexpectedly calm coda.
Click here to see a photo slideshow of Dion at Target Center
It's All Coming Back to Me Now
That's The Way It Is
If You Asked Me To
The Power of Love
Love Can Move Mountains
Beauty and the Beast
You're the Voice
Tous les blues sont écrits pour toi
To Love You More
All By Myself
Because You Loved Me
Let's Dance / Another One Bites the Dust / Kiss / River Deep, Mountain High / Lady Marmalade
My Heart Will Go On