The ultimate superstar package
Sue Summers, The Telegraph, 7 May 2002
Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu are opera's golden couple - more
expensive together than individually - yet their choice of roles is
pulling them apart. As they open at Covent Garden, they tell Sue Summers
about family life on the road
OPERA singers should be approached with care - the more so when they are
young and beautiful and take on some of the aura of rock stars; even
more so when they have a reputation for temperament which makes Maria
Callas seem like Vera Lynn. And when I first arrive at the Royal Opera
House, Covent Garden, to meet Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, the
golden couple of opera, things do sound a little ominous.
For our meeting, I am taken to something called the "Interview room", a
term that makes me half expect to be strapped into a chair and beaten
within an inch of my life with long-stemmed roses.
But instead of the torture scene from Tosca, I get the love duet from
Romeo et Juliette. Although Alagna and Gheorghiu have been rehearsing
all day for Puccini's La Rondine, in which they open tonight, and are
clearly tired, they greet me with welcoming smiles. Outside the room
waits a silent, dark-eyed little wraith in jeans playing with a mobile
phone. This is Ornella, Alagna's 10-year-old daughter by his first wife,
who died of a brain tumour in 1994. She usually lives in Paris with his
parents but "it is holidays, so she is here with us," Gheorghiu says.
"Is the most difficult thing about my life, in fact," her husband adds.
"To have to go away to sing when you have your daughter asking you to
stay. And each time when you return to home, you lose something."
This snatch of the domestic is in stark contrast to the tempestuous
public image of the couple known affectionately by their recording
company, EMI, as "Bob and Ange". The other nicknames of the world's
greatest French tenor and the most celebrated of its young sopranos are
less affectionate. They include "the Ceausescus", while director
Jonathan Miller famously nicknamed them "Bonnie and Clyde" after Alagna
failed to turn up for some rehearsals of his production of La Boheme at
the Bastille opera in Paris. The Bastille also dubbed the Romanian-born
Gheorghiu "La Draculette".
The subject might seem a sensitive one. But to my amazement, Alagna
brings it up himself. "I was very proud to be called Bonnie and Clyde,"
he says with a grin. "In fact, I had the idea to do a cover for a CD of
movie music dressed like Bonnie and Clyde. Is the same for everybody. If
you have some success, it's the price you pay that people say bad things
Alagna and Gheorghiu have now been married for seven years and, despite
rumours a few years ago that they were splitting up, seem completely
relaxed and happy in each other's company. The voluptuous Gheorghiu is
pale as ivory after a full day's rehearsal: "To start each day at 10 is
too much for me, I hate it!" she proclaims.
Although she initially does most of the talking, there is something
guarded in her manner, while her husband seems totally at ease. "He
makes better jokes than me, even in Romanian," his wife says admiringly.
Covent Garden has fond associations for them, since it is where they
first met, in a production of La Boheme in 1992. "I was little bit late
at the rehearsal and I heard Angela's voice behind the door," says
Alagna. "I thought, 'My God, it's beautiful but I'm sure the soprano
will be awful.' Then I open the door and I have a very good surprise."
"First of all I just see his eyes," adds Gheorghiu, with a flirtatious
gleam at her husband. "Then he open his mouth and - oh, la, la!"
And it was at Covent Garden two years later that they were both hailed
as major new stars - Gheorghiu in La traviata, Alagna in Romeo et
Juliette - and with a base in London as well as homes in Switzerland,
Paris and Romania, they are likely to sing here even more now that their
close friend, "Tony" Pappano, is taking over as musical director.
Indeed, they are currently negotiating to do their first Tosca together
on stage for Pappano at the Royal Opera, possibly in 2004.
Anyone who can't wait that long can see them in a French-made film of
Tosca - conducted by Pappano - which opens here on Friday. Remarkably
faithful to Puccini, despite the director Benoit Jacquot's many
stylistic tricks, it is a wonderful showcase for their talents.
They both love the cinema, so I assume that doing Tosca together first
on film was a calculated move to seek a new, younger audience. Alagna
shakes his head. "We never ask to do nothing," he says. "Is our
mentality we wait for someone to make a proposal to us. It's better when
somebody ask for you. Then you are in more powerful position."
Asking for them, of course, is what just about everybody seems to be
doing right now. They have even mended their bridges with the Met -
whose general manager Joseph Volpe famously dropped them from La
traviata after Alagna tried to interfere with the production design - by
appearing at the New York opera house in a recent charity concert.
As a couple, they can apparently command more than twice the fee they
charge as individuals. "We have a separate contract for ourselves as a
couple," Alagna says. " 'The couple' - it's another artist, you know."
But despite Tosca and La Rondine - which the Opera House is reviving as
a vehicle for them after their successful 1998 concert performance at
the Albert Hall - and several new joint recordings, including Il
trovatore and Carmen, they have performed together less frequently over
the past three years.
"We have different ideas," Alagna says. "Something important for me may
not be important for Angela." One problem may be that while the
Franco-Sicilian Alagna is indisputably the best in the world at singing
French opera, his wife admits that she finds "to learn French and to
sing French, it's very, very difficult. For me, it's not so easy as
But while they may not be in the same production, they still try to make
sure that they are appearing in the same opera house at the same time.
"Nowhere is home," Gheorghiu says. "We're never at home. For a couple,
it's better because there is no routine." It must, though, be hard on
their daughters. As well as Ornella, they have adopted the 12-year-old
daughter of Gheorghiu's sister, Elena, who was killed in an accident in
1996 at the age of 30. These twin tragedies in their past lives are, one
senses, yet another uniting factor in their marriage.
"We both had some bad moment in our previous life and when you have this
kind of experience, after that it's a joke," Alagna says. "You see
everything in another way. To be alive, it's a miracle each morning, but
to sing, it's another miracle. We come from not rich backgrounds and we
never forget that. Each day we are very happy. When we are in beautiful
hotel, we are happy."
"In our life we are very, very happy," Angela says.
This page was last updated on: July 24, 2002