They're young. They're in love. They're setting the opera world on it's ear.
Martha Duffy, Time Magazine, 29 April 1996
What the opera world needs most right now is a new Wagnerian soprano or a hefty heldentenor, but that is not what the fans are looking for. What they fret about is, Where is the next Pavarotti going to come from? Who will replace Domingo? These two supersingers have raised tenor worship to extraordinary levels, and even they admit that they can't go on forever. There are many claimants for the rich prize of tenor dominance, but the one taken most seriously is a young French-born Sicilian named Roberto Alagna. He is 32, handsome, slender and blessed with a sweet, lyric--but not gigantic--voice. Plus he can act. The world is at his feet.
But Alagna is not about to settle for just Pavarotti's mantle. This media dream child comes complete with his own legend. Try this one. Nineteen months ago, when he was beginning to make breaker-size ripples in the international opera pool, his wife died of a brain tumor, leaving him with their toddler Ornella. Then last year in London he fell in love with a beautiful Romanian soprano, Angela Gheorghiu, 30, who was making headlines at Covent Garden as Violetta in Sir Georg Solti's production of La Traviata. The pair have been together ever since, as inseparable as two can be who must manage separate singing careers; they plan to marry in the next couple of weeks. "It's destiny," Alagna cries. "Very good destiny!" Naturally, the romance has the music world agog and has led to catty backstage gossip about the deals and schemes that envy often inspires.
Not surprising, because Alagna and Gheorghiu have a rare ability to reach beyond the boundaries of the ordinary operagoing public and create visceral excitement. Call it plain old sex appeal. The audience enjoys seeing real-life lovers playing doomed heroes and heroines onstage. Alagna plays the 19th century romantic lover with a modern twist, reinterpreting a vanished ideal for the 1990s--no sobs or lunges here. Gheorghiu's calling card is the home video of the Solti Traviata (London). This is an opera in which the soprano must rule the stage, and she brings a riveting combination of glamour, poignancy and guts to the role and extends it with her lavish response to Solti's bravura reading of the score.
Two weeks ago, the pair sang together in La Boheme for the first time in New York City at the Metropolitan Opera House (they have sung together in Europe before). The night was charged with theatrical glamour, marred by the fact that Alagna had a cold that uncovered what seemed to be a break in his voice; he had to cancel a subsequent appearance. Gheorghiu, however, was an ideal Mimi, vocally lustrous and with the strange radiance that consumptives are alleged to have.
But while love in bloom may dazzle audiences, in the music business it can incite suspicion and jealousy. Some agents and managers hint darkly that Alagna has used his clout to get plum recording deals for Gheorghiu. Others say Alagna doesn't need to throw his weight around; Gheorghiu can scheme quite nicely on her own. Certainly some intricate maneuvering took place during negotiations for a new recording of Romeo et Juliette, masterminded for RCA by Placido Domingo, who plays the hero. Gheorghiu backed out of a pledge to the project--but guess who she will record the opera with for EMI?
A European agent fumes that Gheorghiu will end up another Kathleen Battle, a reference to the popular soprano whose skaty way with commitments and temper tantrums got her fired from the Met. But the Met assistant manager, Sarah Billinghurst, who deals with both Gheorghiu and Alagna, denies that either is difficult. "They are professionals," she says, "and they arrive well prepared for whatever role they will perform."
The pair took very different routes to success. Hers is the more conventional story. The daughter of a train conductor, she graduated from the conservatory in Bucharest, where she studied voice, musicianship and languages. Alagna received no real training at all. He is self-taught and learned a great deal from studying records. He comes from a large Sicilian clan and feels he learned a lot about robust, stylish singing at his hearth. An early hero was the 1950s tenor movie star Mario Lanza, whose films Alagna saw on television. He was discovered crooning in a pizza parlor.
That he has not studied a conventional method of sound voice production is a criticism Alagna will confront throughout his career. He claims that no teacher is necessary to train the voice; brain and body, if they are not abused, can guide it instead. As conductor and opera specialist Eugene Kohn points out, "Alagna's is a valid approach. But it works best when you're rested, not coping with too loud an orchestra and not singing too heavy a role. When you don't have those conditions, a little technique helps." A lack of that was in evidence, perhaps, at the Met.
The Alagna clan did not live in Palermo but outside Paris. That fact of fate has presented Roberto with yet another enormous gift: he is one of the few first-rate singers who can deliver the almost inimitable diction and style required for a fine performance in the French repertory. He is now the tenor of choice for Gounod's Romeo et Juliette. Ahead lie the Massenet heroes. At the Chatelet Theater in Paris, he laid crucial career ground, singing the title role in Verdi's Don Carlos, an opera written in French, though usually performed in Italian. It is a long, heroic part, heavier than any he had previously attempted. Both Alagna and the production, by Luc Bondy, were a triumph, celebrated and savored in Paris as only the French can welcome a major artistic achievement.
This week EMI will issue a CD of Alagna and Gheorghiu's called Duets & Arias. Listening to it is a sure corrective to all the backstage gossip. The pleasure lies in hearing young, supple voices in mint condition--singing while rapture is still careless, before stress, jet travel and mistakes in repertory have begun to take their toll. The pair are sublimely sensitive to each other, and more important, to the composers. From a war-horse like the "Cherry Duet" from L'Amico Fritz to the thrilling first-act finale of La Boheme, the record is an outpouring of golden sound. The world is indeed at their feet.
- With reporting by Dorie Denbigh/Paris
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