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Roberto Alagna: A Retrospective

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Roberto Alagna, Opera Arias, London Philharmonic, Richard Armstrong (recorded in 1995, re-released on June 13, 2006)

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Roberto Alagna, Verdi Arias, Berlin Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado (recorded in 1997, re-released on June 13, 2006)

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Roberto Alagna, Berlioz Arias, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Bertrand de Billy (recorded in 2002, re-released on July 4, 2006)
When EMI decided not to renew the contract of star tenor Roberto Alagna, I was shocked. I was sure that some company somewhere had to be able to make some money off this voice, and Deutsche Grammophon decided that it would be that company. So, this summer much of his EMI catalogue has been re-released with new packaging by DG (a series called Best of Alagna), and since I have not reviewed any of those discs in their previous incarnation, it seems an appropriate time to take stock of three of them as a representative sample. (At the time of this writing, DG has not updated their artists Web site to include a listing for Alagna, although there is one in French here.) This is a tenor voice that can make your head spin, a voice that is just not all that common in the opera world. At the recent Met Gala for Joseph Volpe, Sieglinde wrote in her diary about not only swooning but even dreaming about "the Bobbie." I am not going to go there.

Alagna is French, the child of Sicilian immigrants to France. He grew up in Clichy-sous-Bois, one of the suburbs of Paris. He is what we might call a natural singer, although he did attend a conservatory as a teenager. Alagna grew up in a musical environment, with all sorts of sonic influences. Possibly, for someone with this kind of voice, it may be better not to have attended conservatory as an adult. He gravitated to the kind of opera that has the broadest appeal to audiences, that is easiest to sell. To shine on these sorts of anthology aria recordings, you need to be able to show facility, with languages, with vocal flexibility, with characterization. Essentially, the point is to show listeners, including the people who cast operas, that you can sing the money notes of a wide range of music. Alagna's bread and butter was made in the repertory on these discs, all music composed in the 19th century and all in his two native languages, French and Italian.

I arranged the three discs under review according to the date they were recorded, and listening to them in that order gives an interesting view of how Alagna's voice grew and changed over the late 1990s and into recent years. On the 1995 Opera Arias disc, the power is breathtaking on those high full-throated notes, alone or against full orchestra (great examples in "La donna è mobile" and "M'appari"). True, his intonation is a little low at places in "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" (from Carmen), with strange but not entirely unaffecting sound on the high soft note at the end of "Et j'étais une chose à toi." I enjoy listening to this kind of recording, because singers sometimes like pieces from obscure operas. (I doubt Alagna has ever sung in a production of Gounod's Polyeucte -- our loss, judging by the aria "Source délicieuse" here, where the final high note is an absolute knockout -- or Flotow's Marthe for that matter.) What to make of "A travers le désert" from Rabaud's Mârouf, savetier du Caire? The London Philharmonic must have gotten a kick out of the slinky faux-Arabian score, which is a hoot.

The best orchestral playing, of course, is on the 1997 Verdi Arias disc, thanks to the Berlin Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado. The brass fanfares in the recitative leading into "Celeste Aida" are splendid, and Verdi's best writing for the orchestra, in the scenes from Otello, are that much better because of the instrumental part. Here Alagna is less all out in front in sound as he was on the 1995 disc -- think the classic Pavarotti sound -- with some darker coffee or earth tone in there. The fade to piano on the final note of that aria is handled with grace, although Alagna's loud high notes are still more impressive than his soft ones. With dramatic renditions of the two scenes from Otello, Alagna may have been fishing for the chance to sing that most difficult role on the stage, but I don't think he has yet. The most striking moments are saved for the final tracks: a heroic rendition of "Je veux encore entendre" (with a glorious high C), the new aria for the 1847 adaptation of I Lombardi for Paris, Jérusalem, and Manrico's big Act III scene from Il Trovatore. Few performances of "Di quella pira," here with brief contributions from Alagna's wife, Angela Gheorghiu, and the heroic London Voices chorus, have been this gripping.

Roberto Alagna, photo © Arnaud Baumann
Roberto Alagna, photo © Arnaud Baumann
However, the most interesting repertory is found on Alagna's 2003 disc of Berlioz arias, taken from operas intended for the stage as well as pieces that are as dramatic in nature but not meant to be acted. The ROH Orchestra acquits itself fairly well in Berlioz's superior orchestrations (only late in his career did Verdi come close to Berlioz's understanding of orchestral color). Alagna matches them in power, with his lower range now filled out by comparison to the recordings from the 90s. There are more guest artists, including the children's choir of the Maîtrise de Paris, who serenade the sleeping Jesus with a one-word Alleluia in the excerpt from L'Enfance du Christ.

Besides the surfeit of performers, there is significant musical interest for anyone interested in hearing some of the more obscure corners of Berlioz's works list. For example, Alagna inserts the little Mephistophelian serenade from the Huit scènes de Faust (with the spoken lines recited by Gérard Depardieu), the composer's first attempt at setting Goethe's great story, in a set of tracks from the later La Damnation de Faust. In the same vein, Alagna gives one of Bénédict's arias from Béatrice et Bénédict, and a charming passage from Berlioz's Lélio, again with Depardieu reciting the lines of the title character, while Alagna sings the imagined voice of Horatio. The serenade "Ô mon bonheur," where Lélio imagines his own voice singing, accompanied spectrally by harps and a few winds, is a gem I was glad to hear. In case anyone missed Alagna's intention to stoke the French ego, in honor of the 200th anniversary of Berlioz's birth (1803), the final track is Berlioz's barn-burning arrangement of La Marseillaise, for tenor and choruses of men's voices and children. This one is guaranteed to make the French refugees in Rick's Café Américain stand and sing.

What is Alagna doing these days? His newest recording is a tribute to Luis Mariano, which was supposed to accompany Alagna's work in the revival of operetta through a tribute to Mariano at the Théâtre du Châtelet (alas, not to be). He has been at the Met in recent years, in the title role of Massenet's Werther and the same in Gounod's Faust, and I pagliacci with Gheorghiu at Los Angeles Opera last season. This summer, he sang in the first performance of Lalo's unknown opera Fiesque at the Montpellier Festival. Of course, he continues to sing La Bohème, the opera that more or less made his career. In 2002, he and Gheorghiu also made a film version of Tosca. In other words, life is pretty good.

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