'Life is dangerous. I like danger. I am crazy'
Peter Conrad, The Observer, 6 June 2004
Roberto Alagna & Bryn Terfel rehearsing Faust
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, June 2004
Top tenor Roberto Alagna is discovering his inner Faust as he and his wife, Angela Gheorghiu - opera's Posh and Becks - rehearse for Covent Garden
Faust enters into a pact with the devil to fulfil his dream of wealth and erotic pleasure. He risks perdition, but is saved - in romantic versions of the story - by the love of a good woman, the earthly angel who pardons him for betraying her. The myth sums up the spiritual strife and carnal greed of Western man, which is why we keep on retelling or re-enacting it. At Covent Garden recently, I found the plucky tenor Roberto Alagna preparing to turn himself into the archetype, or perhaps discovering his own inner Faust.
Alagna, after a day spent rehearsing David McVicar's new production of Gounod's Faust, introduced himself to me as a man suspended between heaven and hell. He began by presenting his personal domestic goddess. 'This is my wife,' he said, and unnecessarily added, 'this is Angela.' The Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, who plays Faust's victim and redeemer, Marguérite, looked exhausted by her angelic mission, and retreated behind her plate-sized dark glasses; while I talked to Alagna she toyed with her mobile phone, anxious to take him home. They are an operatically impassioned couple. Imagine a Posh who can actually sing - Gheorghiu's voice is lush and duskily sensuous - and a Becks who hits valiant B flats rather than scoring goals.
Alagna dotes on his wife, like Goethe's Faust worshipping the 'eternal woman' who leads him aloft. But what about the demon who tempts Faust into reckless self-indulgence? There was no sign of Bryn Terfel, cast as Méphistophélès in the Royal Opera production. Alagna, however, is a Faust who needs no satanic assistance. Chubby and even cherubic, he has sometimes sported a goatee to make himself look sexily sinister. He currently lacks the facial hair, but is quite capable of behaving diabolically without it. 'I am,' he told me at the end of our talk, 'a little devil'. Gossip supplies details of his devilry, including tiffs with Solti or Jonathan Miller and a few capriciously cancelled performances.
We met in a rehearsal room, so that Alagna could walk me through Charles Edwards's imposing, ingenious set for Faust: a slice of the ornate Paris Opéra (McVicar's Faust is Gounod himself, not a Renaissance alchemist but an elderly composer in quest of rejuvenation), Marguérite's rustic cottage, a looming church organ for the scenes of divine retribution. 'It will be very phantasmagoric,' Alagna promised.
He admitted that the pleasure of the role lay in the opportunity it gave him to unleash his antic disposition and behave as if possessed. 'Everybody inside is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,' he said, speaking with a helter-skelter, adrenalised enthusiasm. 'Each of us has a malefic part. When Faust signs the contract, I think he too becomes a demon. He wants women, alcohol, orgies; by the end he is completely depraved.'
But Alagna's personal notion of depravity has an endearing innocence, together with a strain of tantrum-prone tenorial exhibitionism. 'The quality Faust has - I don't know a word for it in English - is insouciance. He wants to spend his life playing. He is like a bad child. I was very turbulent when I was a boy. I had too much energy.'
He still has an excess of it: he bounced up and down on a piano stool as he talked, and after showing me the set took me on another tour of his compact body, pointing out the separate bits of it that he had damaged while hurling himself into the fray on stage. 'This month I am 41, and by now I have broken everything - my ankles, knees, a tendon, ligaments, two toes. I cracked a rib while I was filming Tosca with Angela. Life is dangerous, no? But I like danger, I am crazy. It is a risk to get out of bed each morning.'
Or, I suggested, to fall out of it, since that is what I saw Alagna do at the end of Massenet's Werther in New York last January. The suicidal poet is meant to expire quietly, which hardly suited Alagna's volatile temperament. After the character's last gasp, he therefore lunged from the bed, thudded onto the floor and rolled to the footlights. ' I must give it all,' he said, remembering these feats of derring-do, 'body and soul!' As if to indicate the location of the soul, he grabbed a tuft of chest hair.
Bone heals, but critics fret about the risks Alagna takes with the fragile gristle in his throat. He is, like Faust, insouciant when warned him about abusing his vocal cords. 'The tenor is not a natural voice. Each night is a challenge; he may break the note at any point. Look at the aria Faust sings in Marguérite's garden - it is quiet, dreamy, like a Schumann lied , only then I must come out suddenly with a top C!' Despite such abrupt flights, the lyricism of Gounod is relatively safe; it's the ardour of Verdi or the neurotic intensity of Puccini that can shred a voice, and these temptations are proving hard for Alagna to resist.
He has an allegiance, after all, to both cultures. Though he grew up in Paris, where his father had migrated to work as a bricklayer, his family is Sicilian. His loyalty to the clan suggests the atavistic family ties of the Corleones. In 1999 he antagonised the Metropolitan Opera by quibbling over Zeffirelli's plans for a production of La Traviata in which he and Gheorghiu were to appear; he proposed his two brothers as an alternative design team. The Met kept Zeffirelli but recast the opera with a more tractable tenor and soprano.
Alagna's multi-talented siblings play their guitars to accompany him on a CD of serenades, and he has commissioned an opera from one of them, based on a Victor Hugo story about a condemned man awaiting his execution. When his contract with EMI lapsed, he cobbled together a family firm to replace the multi-national corporation, and now employs David and Federico to record his performances for DVD.
They will be filming Pagliacci this summer, in Sicily, of course. As always, Alagna has opted for the most dangerous method: 'We do it live, not with playback sound. And I sing Canio, the hero, and Silvio, who is his rival.' Vocally, the double act may be easy, even though Silvio is meant to be a baritone. But Canio also has to kill Silvio at the end. I'm sure that Alagna, so hyperkinetic that he seems to be chas ing his own tail, will find a way of stabbing himself in the back.
Though he admires French prosody and acknowledges the need for elegance in a role like Faust, Alagna's musical instincts remain viscerally Italian. Last year at the Los Angeles Opera, the company run by Plácido Domingo, he combined the two national schools in one daredevil evening: he sang two acts of Werther followed by the finale of Verdi's Otello, and died twice - mellifluously as Werther, with violent abandon as Otello.
'I made that for Plácido,' grinned Alagna with another insouciant shrug. He said it could not be done, so I did it.' 'Are you mad?' I asked. 'Yes,' he grinned. 'I already told you.' He then unreeled a scary list of forthcoming engagements, tackling the most strenuous roles in the repertory: Radamès in Aida, the embattled revolutionary in Andrea Chénier, the obsessed, self-destructive lover in Manon Lescaut and the bandit in La Fanciulla del West.
He is also proud of resurrecting Alfano's forgotten opera Cyrano de Bergerac , which he recently performed in Montpellier. 'It is my best achievement so far. Everyone at the end was weeping! Yes, of course I had the long nose, how can I be Cyrano without that?' With a swagger, he sketched the profile of that grandiose hooter.
The night before we spoke, he had seen the National Theatre's production of the Rostand play which was Alfano's source, with Stephen Rea as the swashbuckler. I asked what he'd thought of Rea's performance. 'Mine was better,' Alagna said.
Tenors are expert at one-upmanship. Domingo also plans to sing Cyrano, in a production shared between the Met and the Royal Opera; here too Alagna staked a prior claim. 'I sang the original French version. I think maybe Plácido does the revision, which is translated into Italian.' (Apparently, Domingo's edition also deducts a few inconvenient high notes.)
Such comments may sound cocky, but they testify to Alagna's boyish candour and reveal the tough, clawing reality of his competitive profession. Their assertiveness also hints at the presence of doubt, which bravado attempts to cover up. I asked if he had been prepared for a success that came so quickly when, after singing for eight years in a Paris cabaret while holding down a desultory day job as an accountant, he was cast by Glyndebourne in a touring production of La Bohème .
His reply evinced what he calls the psychological chiaroscuro - the blend of gaiety and gloom - that attracts him in the character of Faust. 'Ah, but all the time I say I have no success. I want to destroy my CDs, and after every performance I am convinced it is terrible. Then Angela comes and tells me to listen to the applause! When you are romantic, that is the way; I am very exuberant, then two minutes later I am sure that no one loves me.'
Gounod's Faust - with all his wishes granted and all his dreams, sexual or mercenary, come true - bestrides the world for as long as the opera lasts. Alagna has Gheorghiu, four Rolexes, an equal number of houses, and a goodly supply of high Cs (let's hope) banked in his throat. But the view from the heights is dizzying. I hope he keeps his little devil under control.
· The Royal Opera's Faust opens on Friday, and is to be broadcast live on BBC2 and to Covent Garden's piazza on 19 June. The first run at Covent Garden is sold out, but there will be a revival in October.
This page was last updated on: June 17, 2004