Fun fact about Celine Dion: When she released My Heart Will Go On in 1997, she was younger than Taylor Swift is today.
Doesn’t seem possible, does it? Dion has been singing professionally since the early ’80s, and notched her first English hit before Swift was born. But then, something about Dion’s dramatic voice has always rendered conventional measures of time and space obsolete.
Like on Wednesday at Amalie Arena in Tampa: Would any of the nearly 15,000 fans in attendance have guessed from her effortlessly virtuosic, personable-as-ever performance that Dion was 51?
Playing only her second Tampa show in 20-plus years — and her first since 2009 — the pride of Charlemagne, Quebec, reminded a sold-out crowd why she remains a diva like no other, blending skyscraper-high drama with giddy theatricality and enough chest-beating ballads to keep fans singing through tears all night.
“Ten years! This is a lifetime!" Dion said. “Maybe it’s because they locked me up in the Nevada desert all that time. But you know what? I escaped. And finally made it back here to the great state of Florida. And it feels just fantastic — the palm trees, the sunshine, the blue sky, the breeze, the salt air. Wow.”
Yeah, you don’t hold down a blockbuster Las Vegas residency without learning how to do a little crowd work. And at that, Dion’s an old pro. This is a show designed to bring her all the way to the people, with thrusts on each side of the stage jutting almost into the stands. When she strutted out there for that key change on the peppy That’s the Way It Is, at least half of the house really felt it.
She needed all of that stage to accommodate her 17-piece band, including a string quartet and a guitarist in a sturdy leather kilt. And she needed all of them to flesh the cheesy, early-'90s power balladry of If You Asked Me To and The Power of Love into something that felt from this century. With her big band behind her, she could thrust her arms in victorious Vs and sustain massive notes lesser singers wouldn’t dream of on dramatic operettas like It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.
But Dion has a silly side, too. Ripping off drape-sized sleeves for a tuxy Chippendales look on You’re the Voice and the vampy, bilingual blues number Tous les blues sont ecrits pour toi allowed her to crouch and stretch like a cougar on the prowl as her voice spun and soared like a lasso. She was mugging through her music, embracing the performative theatricality of the Celtic-tinged To Love You More, and egging fans to sing as loud as possible.
“I think I got an extra bus backstage,” she said after You’re the Voice. “We can all squeeze in and go on tour together.”
But Dion’s pipes were the ones we all came for, and she let them ring on the vulnerable ballad Courage and a solo version of her Andrea Bocelli duet The Prayer. She wove a few bars of her operatic mezzo-soprano into the powerhouse All By Myself, then graced the audience with an a cappella key change for the ages, leading to a roaring ovation that seemed to leave her awestruck. Sacre bleu and zut alors, what a moment.
A couple of songs hewed closer to the middle of the road, such as the tasteful but controlled Imperfections, a fine newer single that doesn’t soar like classic Celine. And a late-show covers medley that included David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Prince’s Kiss and Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust relied less on Dion’s voice than the strutty, drag-show attitude she flaunted like her sparkly silver bodysuit.
All Dion’s outfits, by the way: stunning, from the opening crimson dress and sky-high heels that stretched her svelte frame into a statue; to the ruffled cumulus of a gown she floated out in for My Heart Will Go On. Twenty-three years after Titanic, that one still crushes hearts like Jack sinking to the deep.
“It is such a privilege and a gift to be able to use something to be able to communicate, like music, like songs, like singing,” Dion said. “Even though I have been spending my whole life on stage doing what I love, it’s something that I will never get used to."
Never. Not even after ... how many years has it been again, anyway? Eh, doesn’t matter. The years stopped mattering long ago. Dion has always been timeless. And still is.