Roberto Alagna: the ‘fourth tenor’ on that per­for­mance at La Scala

Roberto Alagna’s ca­reer has scaled great heights and some ter­ri­ble lows, but the French tenor finds comfort and cathar­sis in opera, writes Dar­ryn King

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

In De­cem­ber 2006, a few min­utes into Franco Zef­firelli’s new pro­duc­tion of Verdi’s Aida at La Scala in Mi­lan, the cel­e­brated Franco-Si­cil­ian tenor Roberto Alagna stormed off the stage. His open­ing aria, Ce­lesta Aida, had been met with scat­tered boos and de­ri­sive whis­tles from the tra­di­tion­al­ist log­gion­isti in the up­per bal­cony. So Alagna gave a half-hearted mil­i­tary salute and made an abrupt and un­sched­uled stage-right exit.

The or­ches­tra played on. Alagna’s co-star Ildiko Kom­losi gamely be­gan what was meant to be a duet, ad­dress­ing it to no one in par­tic­u­lar: “Di quale no­bil fierezza ti balena il volto! (What no­ble courage shines in your face!)” In a mat­ter of mo­ments, Alagna’s un­der­study, An­tonello Palombi, found him­self thrust on to the pala­tial set in jeans. Nat­u­rally, the whole ag­o­nis­ing slow-mo­tion car crash of it is view­able on YouTube.

Alagna’s walk-off caused shock waves in the opera com­mu­nity. The New York Times called it a “bravura per­for­mance” in the “his­tory of op­er­atic hissy fits”. “His be­hav­iour has cre­ated a rift be­tween the artist and the au­di­ence and there is no pos­si­bil­ity of re­pair­ing this re­la­tion­ship,” a La Scala spokesman said in a state­ment. Zef­firelli him­self said, “A pro­fes­sional should never be­have in this way.”

I meet Alagna 10 years later, in his dress­ing room at New York’s Metropoli­tan Opera House, ahead of his de­but Aus­tralian per­for­mances this month. It seems lately you can hardly drag him off the stage. Ear­lier in the year he played the cuck­olded clown Canio in Pagli­acci; he signed on to re­place an ill per­former in Manon Lescaut a lit­tle more than two weeks be­fore open­ing night; and re­hearsals for Madama But­ter­fly be­gin to­mor­row.

“When I have chal­lenges, I try to do my best,” he says.

The build­ing is still vi­brat­ing from the thun­der­ous clos­ing chords of Manon Lescaut. Alagna is out of his cos­tume and make-up, wear­ing jeans and a black cardi­gan with his bare, bar­rel chest on dis­play. His rudi­men­tary dress­ing room is tucked away in the back­stage cor­ri­dors, with just a cou­ple of mir­rors and a pi­ano, and city traf­fic au­di­ble through a small win­dow.

It’s dif­fi­cult to rec­on­cile Alagna’s rep­u­ta­tion as a prima donna and, as La Scala’s artis­tic di­rec­tor put it in 2006, his “ob­vi­ous lack of re­spect for the au­di­ence and the theatre”, with the warmth-ex­ud­ing man who holds his hand over his heart dur­ing the evening’s cur­tain call. “I’m very happy be­cause … I don’t know, it was a won­der­ful night. I love this mu­sic. I love this char­ac­ter. I love the cast. I love to sing with her [Alagna’s co-star Kris­tine Opo­lais]. I love the Met. I love the peo­ple here. I love ev­ery­thing.”

The La Scala walk­out was un­doubt­edly the low point in a per­form­ing ca­reer filled with highs. In 30 years, the mus­cu­lar-voiced tenor has per­formed more than 60 roles, in­clud­ing in two con­tem­po­rary op­eras com­posed es­pe­cially for him, at the world’s great­est opera fes­ti­vals and in the world’s great­est opera houses.

Like Placido Domingo be­fore him, Alagna has lent his Neapoli­tan tones to sev­eral cross­over and com­pi­la­tion records, with ti­tles such as Tenor and Viva Opera!, that have sold in the mil­lions. His 2006 Deutsche Gram­mophon re­lease C’est Mag­nifique! fea­tured French stan­dards, a cou­ple of Cole Porter num­bers and a duet with Jean Reno on I Love Paris. There has been a Christ­mas al­bum, too. (Later that night, leav­ing via the stage door, I run into a small mob of wait­ing Alagna fan­girls.)

It’s sur­pris­ing, then, to dis­cover that for many years Alagna de­spaired that his voice didn’t live up to the sound he heard in his head. “Maybe it was the sound of per­fec­tion,” he says. “For many, many years I fought for that sound. I would break my CDs be­cause it was a tor­ture to lis­ten to my own voice.”

Alagna was plagued by anx­i­eties about his singing voice from a young age. Born to Si­cil­ian im­mi­grants, a brick­layer and seam­stress, he grew up in the outer suburbs of Paris. When he was 10, he saw a tele­vi­sion broad­cast of the 1951 Metro-Gold­wyn-Mayer En­rico Caruso biopic The Great Caruso, star­ring Mario Lanza as the star tenor. The movie made a deep im­pres­sion. He had heard sto­ries about his great-grand­fa­ther, a shop­keeper in Man­hat­tan’s Lit­tle Italy, who used to sing for the Mafia with Caruso.

“It was a big shock for me,” he says. “It was my story. I was very im­pressed. And af­ter that I start to sing. It was amaz­ing. Hours and hours of singing with Mario Lanza.”

De­spite grow­ing up in an opera-lov­ing house­hold — or in­deed be­cause of it — Alagna was too shy to per­form in front of his fam­ily. His sis­ter was shocked to catch him singing in full voice in his bed­room one day; he begged her to keep it a se­cret.

“For me, op­er­atic singers were he­roes,” he says. “Like mu­tants, you know, like the X-Men. It was im­pos­si­ble for me to pre­tend to be an X-Man. But when I was alone, this en­ergy was like a vol­cano, like magma. When I was alone in my house I sang like a crazy guy.”

Alagna even­tu­ally made his singing de­but, aged 14, at a pri­vate func­tion at his un­cle’s Parisian pizze­ria. In just a cou­ple of years, he was per­form­ing pro­fes­sion­ally in four or five Parisian cabarets every night. He de­vel­oped his stamina, his en­ter­tain­ing prow­ess and his vo­cal cords shar­ing the stage with top­less dancers, il­lu­sion­ists and co­me­di­ans. Dur­ing the day, he stud­ied opera and took singing lessons with Rafael Ruiz, a Cuban mu­si­cian. For about a year, he worked as an ac­coun­tant.

It was a pun­ish­ing ros­ter — one of Alagna’s last­ing me­men­tos of that time has been a life­time of in­som­nia — but to­tally for­ma­tive.

“In this cabaret I sang 70 songs a night. Every day you had to learn new songs. Singing, singing … I never had time to please my­self or go on hol­i­day. My en­tire life was singing and learn­ing.”

Alagna was 20 when he met Lu­ciano Pavarotti for the first time, at a record sign­ing in a Paris depart­ment store.

“It was a big emo­tion. For me he was a mix­ture of Bac­chus and Po­sei­don … it was amaz­ing.” Years later, Alagna en­tered an in­ter­na­tional vo­cal com­pe­ti­tion judged by the King of the High Cs him­self. In the first qual­i­fy­ing round, while the other hope­fuls sang two arias each, Alagna sang one bar of Rossini’s La Danza be­fore be­ing in­ter­rupted. “You’re in,” they told him. Alagna won the com­pe­ti­tion.

Alagna mar­ried, had a daugh­ter, and turned down his first in­vi­ta­tion from the Met to per­form in Der Rosenkava­lier. “I said, ‘ No, no! I’m too young.’ ” Other offers came in, and soon Alagna was per­form­ing ma­jor tenor roles in the world’s best opera houses, in­clud­ing La Scala.

It was Alagna’s 1994 per­for­mance as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet in Lon­don’s Covent Gar­den, how­ever, that saw him anointed as an in­ter­na­tional star. He earned an Olivier Award and a pithy new moniker: “Now there is a fourth tenor,” wrote one critic. It stuck.

The ex­pe­ri­ence ought to have been an un­mit­i­gated tri­umph, ex­cept a month be­fore the show opened, Alagna’s wife had died of a brain tu­mour. “I was 29 when I lost my wife,” says Alagna. “She was 29 too. And I had my baby. It was so un­fair for a beau­ti­ful girl like her.”

As emo­tion­ally charged as Romeo and Juliet was for Alagna, Or­pheus’s griev­ing aria from Or­pheus and Eury­dice hits even closer to home to this day: Che faro senza Euridice? (What shall I do without my Eury­dice?)”

“I was like this,” he says. “We were happy, it was the be­gin­ning of my ca­reer, with a lot of suc­cess. To have this kind of tragedy …” Alagna pauses. “It was ter­ri­ble for me.”

Through the years, Alagna has con­tin­ued to find comfort and cathar­sis in opera. It’s a kind of therapy, he says. Asked about the im­por­tance of emo­tional truth in a per­for­mance, Alagna says: “I tell you the truth. For me, I’m not try­ing to ‘play’. It’s all in the mu­sic. Some­times it’s im­pos­si­ble not to cry be­cause of the sit­u­a­tion, be­cause of the words … You are telling such beau­ti­ful words. Maybe I’m too sen­si­tive. My en­tire life I’m like this.”

With that, you might be­gin to un­der­stand how Alagna’s emo­tions got the bet­ter of him on stage that night at La Scala 10 years ago, how those re­ver­ber­at­ing boos felt like death blows.

For starters, by Alagna’s own as­sess­ment, there was noth­ing par­tic­u­larly wrong with his per­for­mance; as he points out, it was the ap­par­ently jeer-wor­thy aria that ended up be­ing used on the DVD. “Maybe it wasn’t my big­gest night. But it wasn’t bad! Be­lieve me. It wasn’t fair. It was po­lit­i­cal. No one un­der­stood very well what’s hap­pened there.”

Fun­da­men­tally, though, Alagna ad­mits he’s a lover, not a fighter. “I am not a war­rior,” he says. “This pro­fes­sion — I want to give love to peo­ple. It’s not a bat­tle. For me, when I am on stage, I want to give hap­pi­ness. This art is di­vine, mirac­u­lous. To be on stage, for me it’s like a church for a priest. It’s a tem­ple.”

The pro­duc­tion of Manon Lescaut is some­thing of a re­demp­tion — un­til the Aida in­ci­dent, Manon Lescaut was to be Alagna’s next com­mit­ment at La Scala.

Alagna says he has been im­plored many times to re­turn to Mi­lan, not only by pow­ers that be at La Scala but by some of those log­gion­isti who caused the fuss in the first place.

But he shrugs off the idea of go­ing back. Even if he had the space in his sched­ule to consider it, Alagna is serenely sat­is­fied with his ca­reer and life at the mo­ment.

Af­ter a dif­fi­cult sep­a­ra­tion in 2013 from his sec­ond wife — so­prano An­gela Ghe­o­rghiu, whom some have dubbed “Drac­ulette” — he mar­ried Pol­ish so­prano Alek­san­dra Kurzak. He be­came a fa­ther, for the sec­ond time, in 2014.

“To­day I have a won­der­ful life and a won­der­ful wife, I have two daugh­ters, I have a lot of work. I’m a lucky man.”

And, fi­nally, he has made peace with his in­stru­ment.

“The voice is younger now,” he says. “When I was younger, I tried to make the voice darker, big­ger. To­day I have more seren­ity. To­day I ac­cept my voice, the colour of my voice. The most im­por­tant thing is to give sen­ti­ment to peo­ple. And to have peace your­self.”

Roberto Alagna will per­form in Syd­ney, Mel­bourne and Bris­bane from July 21.

Roberto Alagna, top; the tenor as Des Grieux with Kris­tine Opo­lais in Puc­cini’s Manon

Lescaut at The Metropoli­tan Opera in New York

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