The odd couple
Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times, 2 June 2002

They're young, gifted and hugely popular - so why do the opera stars
Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu have so many enemies? And are they
as difficult as their detractors claim?

Roberto Alagna and his wife, Angela Gheorghiu, are an enigma. To the
spin merchants of their record company, they are "opera's most romantic
duo", while to Jonathan Miller, who directed them, separately, in Paris
in Puccini's La bohème and Verdi's La traviata, they are the "Bonnie and
Clyde of opera". Backstage at some of the world's most prestigious opera
houses, they are referred to as the Ceausescus - an unflattering
reference to the late communist dictator (and his wife) of Gheorghiu's
native country, Romania - and I've even heard a record executive
privately call her "Draculetta" (she comes from Transylvania).
For opera-lovers who have thrilled to their records and their joint
appearances onstage at Covent Garden, the hostility these opera stars
have aroused in their still young careers (both are in their
mid-thirties) must seem something of a mystery. They are self-evidently
hugely gifted: Alagna, born in Paris to parents of Sicilian origin, is
perhaps the most charismatic "French" tenor to have graced the world's
stages in more than three decades, and Gheorghiu has perhaps the most
instantly recognisable and interesting soprano voice of our time, a
liquid instrument of great lyrical beauty with gleaming "spun gold" high
notes, but a dark, vibrant contralto range, reminiscent of Maria Callas'
s gut-wrenching chest tones.

The couple famously met at the Royal Opera House eight years ago, while
he was singing the male romantic lead of Gounod's Romeo and Juliet and
she the doomed, consumptive heroine of Puccini's La bohème. Two years
later, while making their Metropolitan Opera debut in La bohème, they
were married by New York's then mayor, Rudy Giuliani. Since then, they
have returned regularly to Covent Garden, and have just completed a
critically acclaimed, completely sold-out run of Puccini's rarely
performed La rondine, a lavish production mounted expressly for them.

It was a fairy-tale romance - Alagna was a young widower with a small
daughter when they met - they are an artistic dream team and he is
charming, she beautiful (by opera-soprano standards, anyway). So why,
then, are they so detested in some quarters?

Their uncritical admirers say that it's jealousy at their meteoric rise
and, needless to say, the press is to blame. The old
build-them-up-to-knock-them-down chestnut is regularly trotted out to
explain away the negative coverage they got when Miller made his Bonnie
and Clyde remarks, and called them unprofessional; when La Scala's
notoriously demanding music director, Riccardo Muti, sacked Gheorghiu
from a pro- duction of Leoncavallo's I pagliacci, protesting that she
couldn't sing her part to his exacting standards; when Joe Volpe, the
Metropolitan's plain-speaking, no-nonsense-tolerating general manager
removed them from a new production of La traviata after Alagna had
objected to some of Franco Zeffirelli's designs; and, most recently,
when The Sunday Times reported that Gheorghiu had been fired by the
couple's joint personal manager, Levon Sayan - a big player in the
light-entertainment business, who also manages Charles Aznavour, and
continues to work for Alagna.

When I met them towards the end of their Rondine run at Pavarotti's
favourite London residence, the Mandarin Oriental hotel, they are all
smiles and greet me warmly. (I have interviewed both of them before.)
Alagna exudes the natural charm that distinguishes his stage demeanour,
but Gheorghiu - a less convincing actor - seems slightly on the
defensive. In the flesh, she is a striking woman, but somewhat scarily
reminiscent, with her black hair worn long, of a Morticia Addams who
wears white to make people think she is all sweetness and light. We are
here primarily to discuss their forthcoming film of Romeo and Juliet - a
much-abridged, hour-and-a-quarter reduction of Gounod's five-act opera,
lasting nearly three hours in their complete EMI audio recording - which
Channel 4 will broadcast on Saturday.

"We have tried," says Georghiu, "to keep the important moments from the
opera and to keep the story intact." Alagna elaborates at length: "We
have the ball, the balcony scene. We cut some of the arias in half - for
example, 'Ah, lève-toi, soleil' (Sun, arise, Romeo's most famous solo)
has only one verse, which is a pity - but it works and I think we can
still understand the action. In fact, it's a bit surprising to see the
action going so fast. After the balcony scene, we go directly to the
fight with Tybalt. It's not bad, and the tension is all the time there."

In fact, the action is farcically compressed - this is the "highlights
culture" with a vengeance - and what Gheorghiu describes as a "perfect
location", an isolated castle on an island in a lake near Prague, looks
less like Shakespeare's and Gounod's Verona than the setting for a
Hammer vampire movie circa 1960.

The entire production suggests one of those cheesy, low-budget
television versions of Grimm's fairy tales made for the daytime German
market. Apart from Gheorghiu, Alagna and Tito Beltran as Tybalt, who
lip-synch to themselves, all the actors and chorus have singing doubles.
It's perhaps an indication of their immaturity - unkinder commen-tators
would say their greed - that they should involve themselves so
enthusiastically in such artistic mediocrity.

They have seven more film projects, but after their decidedly iffy Tosca
(better heard than seen) and now this Romeo, they seem more than ever in
need of sound artistic advice. Which brings me to the sore question of
Gheorghiu's management. Apparently, The Sunday Times got it all wrong,
and it was she who fired Sayan, rather than the other way round.

"It was me who decided to do this, and this was his answer because he
was unhappy. It was a misunderstanding. It was the day of my premiere of
La rondine, and someone called me and said what has happened, and it was
like an atomic bomb on my head. I said: what have I done?"

Erm ... Before she starts digging her own grave, Alagna quickly
interjects: "It's not important anyway, because Levon just called us
about the film of I pagliacci and he said: 'Can I speak for you both?'
We said: 'Sure.'"

I observe that it seems strange that they have so much going for them -
they are popular, young, good-looking, at their best outstanding
singers - yet they seem to fall out with everyone: Miller, Muti, Volpe,
Gheorghiu with their joint manager and even with the late Sir Georg
Solti, who catapulted the soprano into the international limelight by
choosing her to sing and record his first-ever production of La traviata
at Covent Garden, but later cancelled a solo recital record when they
clashed over musical interpretation.

For Alagna, it's all rumour and exaggeration by the media: "Like Don
Basilio's La calunnia (Calumny) aria, it grows and grows until everyone
believes it."

So where do the knocking stories come from, then? "Sometimes theatre
directors want to show they have all the power. For example, as there
are always little problems among the management of the Met, Volpe took
the opportunity to show, 'Well, I am the one in charge,' and this is
exactly what just happened now with Luciano." Alagna is referring to
Volpe's criticism of Pavarotti for withdrawing from a $1,500-a-seat gala
fundraiser performance of Tosca at the Met last month. The tenor cried
off sick, and Volpe bizarrely suggested that he should come in person to
apologise to the audience.

So, who knows? In the contemporary world of international opera,
managers, directors and conductors can be just as monstrous as the most
temperamental singers, and it takes two to tango. But one can't come
away from a meeting with the Alagnas without feeling that they
continually confuse opera-house fantasy with reality. According to
Alagna: "We are Romeo and Juliet every day of our lives." Believe that
if you will.


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