Alagna & Gheorghiu - Together, onstage and off
Bridget Paolucci, American Record Guide, March 2000

At the end of Donizetti's romantic comedy Elisir d'Amore, Nemorino and Adina finally admit their love. In December, tenor Roberto Alagna and soprano Angela Gheorghiu, who are husband and wife, sang the roles of the lovers at the Metropolitan Opera. At the moment when the tenor finally gets the girl, he picked her up and whirled her around again and again. There was a murmur of delight in the audience, and the singers onstage heard it.

The next day, Alagna, 36, and Gheorghiu, 34, beamed as they recalled the reaction of the audience. The French/Italian tenor and Romanian soprano spoke in Italian, the language they use with each other. In New York, their home is a suite in a luxury hotel near Lincoln Center. Alagna puts his arm around his wife's shoulders as they speak; they continually complete each other's sentences, interrupt each other, even talk at the same time. Both are ecstatic about their triumph in Elisir.

"It was fantastic," he says. "When I took her in my arms, I beard the audience. People were breathing with us."

"Sometimes, we know we've given the audience a sense of joy, of tenderness", adds Gheorghiu. "The public needs to dream."

The singers brought a fresh perspective to their roles in the opera, and Gheorghiu explains that "the roles are fresh because we really enjoy ourselves and because we're us." Alagna concurs. "We resemble these characters", he says. "We're two young lovers who love life and have the problems of youth. And when the audience sees a married couple on stage, it's different. Even in film--Tom Cruise and his wife Nicole Kidman, for instance--you look at the film differently when you know they're married."

Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, young and good-looking, have been dubbed opera's Love Couple. The soprano has delicate features and porcelain skin offset by jet-black hair. She wears an elegant black dress for the interview; Alagna is dressed in a white cable-knit sweater and jeans. His face is boyish, his personality ebullient. The Love Couple image suits them, and yet it tends to detract from their considerable achievements and the seriousness with which they apporach their art.

Both are leading singers in their own right. And when they sing together, the chemistry between them is palpable, both onstage and in recordings. At the Met, for instance, they have brought a unique intimacy to La Boheme, a combination of playfulness and sensuality to Romeo et Juliette. Their singing is text-centered and expressive, and their warm, full-bodied voices are well matched. Alagna sings with passion and finesse, reflecting his Italian temperament and French upbringing. He displays remarkable agility on stage and seems fearless as he indulges in pratfalls in Elisir or leaps onto a table in La Boheme. The Gheorghiu voice is well focussed and lustrous. She credits her Romanian temperament for the dramatic intensity of her performances. Gheorghiu and Alagna laugh when talking about the similarity between the Romanian and Sicilian temperaments, which they describe as "volcanic".

The combination of finesse and passion is evident in their highly acclaimed new recording of Massenet's Werther. "This was the right moment for me to record it", says Alagna. "First of all, I've performed it on stage. And then I have the opportunity to have a soprano as Charlotte. Every time I hear it with a mezzo, the singer is very good and yet to me it seems as though Charlotte is Werther's mother. Instead, with a soprano like Angela--with that dark voice of hers that's brilliant and sensual at the same time--then it becomes a couple in love. I must say that this recording of Werther was needed. For years the French style has been a bit too refined, without soul. And this opera needs soul."

Gheorghiu adds, "But we never exaggerate or make sounds just for the sake of effect. That's rather cheap", she says, using the English word.

"It's a question of taste", says Alagna. "We sing everything with a bel canto line, always. And we have this taste for the theatrical and for realism--not verismo but realism. To us, realism means the life experiences we have had."

Perhaps no opera means more to them personally than La Boheme, another work they recently recorded together in a new critical edition conducted by Riccardo Chailly. The special dynamic between Alagna and Gheorghiu is reflected in the spontaneity of their scenes together, particularly when Rodolfo and Mimi first meet. "In reality, we lived the intimate meeting of the lovers in La Boheme at Covent Garden", says Alagna. "And every time we start this opera, we get chills just thinking about it, because it was the birth of our own love."

The Alagna-Gheorghiu story is a familiar one. He was born in suburban Paris, shortly after his family emigrated from Sicily to France. Although there were no professional musicians in his family, he grew up surrounded by music; he played the guitar and the family sang. "All Italians are musical," he claims, "and Sicilians even more so." He never studied voice formally but, encouraged by a friend, he learned to sing by listening to recordings. In his mid-teens he sang in cabarets, studied accounting, and did odd jobs to keep going.

In 1988, before he had ever seen his first opera, he was cast as Alfredo in Glyndebourne's touring production of La Traviata. That same year, he won the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition. His career took off with another Traviata at La Scala in 1990 under Riccardo Muti. In October 1994 he received the Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera for his portrayal of Romeo in the Gounod opera. His performance (released on video) is emotionally charged, filled with sensitivity and pathos. He was 30 years old at the time. His wife had just died of a brain tumor after an 18-month illness, leaving him with their two-year-old daughter. In December of that year he sang La Boheme opposite Angela Gheorghiu at Covent Garden, and their real-life love story began.

The soprano studied voice at the Bucharest Music Academy, and in 1992, two years after graduation, she made her professional debut as Zerlina at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The next year she made her Met debut as Mimi. In 1994, Solti selected her for the title role in La Traviata at Covent Garden, which was recorded live for release on CD and video. The beauty of her singing and her impassioned portrayal of Violetta made her an international figure in the opera world. In the meantime, she had made debuts in Vienna and Hamburg.

When she and Alagna sang together in 1994 she was married to someone else, but she soon filed for divorce. In 1996 the lovers again sang La Boheme on the occasion of Alagna's Met debut. They were married on April 27, 1996, after a matinee performance of the same opera. They still become giddy when they recall the wedding ceremony, which took place in the office of Joseph Volpe, the Met's general manager, midway through that evening's Gala in honor of James Levine's 25th anniversary.

Within two years, however, their relationship with Met management had become confrontational. In the spring of 1998, the couple, who had been hired for the new production of La Traviata the following season, insisted on the right to approve the stage designs. Their tactic: delay signing the contract. The result: the Met withdrew the contract. The Alagnas dismiss the widely publicized incident and the ensuing press reports that their being difficult to work with was contrived for publicity. "Perhaps others suffered", says Alagna. "We're too happy to suffer and this is something no one has understood."

As for the press, "We never read reviews, never", says Gheorghiu. Alagna adds, "I have faith in her opinion and vice versa. We are our own critics and we are very tough ..."

"...Very tough," echoes the soprano. "Very demanding."

"And for us, the important thing is the audience", says Alagna. "The audience has always been with us, from the very beginning."

Last year, Alagna and Gheorghiu made debuts as Romeo and Juliet at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and in L'Amico Fritz in Monaco. Much as they enjoy performing together, they prepare for new roles separately. The preparation of a role is a long and involved process for any singer, and according to Gheorghiu, "each of us does it in his or her way. We never talk about this, and we absolutely never study together. When everything is very well prepared, everything memorized, then from the moment we're in the theater, rehearsing with the piano, we put our thoughts together."

"It's very important to talk about each detail", says Alagna. "Not only musical detail, but also the gestures, the acting, everything. We know one another so well that then, on stage, it becomes a game between us. With one glance, I understand what she wants to do, and I follow along--and vice versa."

"Then, too," says Gheorghiu, "we understand one another's tastes, our potential, our limits, the quality of what we do. And we try to please one another on stage." Alagna adds, "With other sopranos and tenors, it's a struggle. But not with us."

When the Alagnas are not working or visiting their many relatives, they live in Switzerland in a house that overlooks Lake Geneva. Why Switzerland? Alagna explains: "Angela is Romanian and Austrian; I'm Italian and French. Switzerland is neutral." It also provides a respite from work and family and friends. Yet they are close to family, and the entourage when the singers arrive at the Met stage door is often made up of assorted relatives, including Alagna's daughter Ornella.

This fall, Gheorghiu sings Liu in the Met's Turandot and Alagna appears as Don Jose in Carmen. In the meantime, the soprano portrays Violetta in Rome and Offenbach's Antonia at Covent Garden. Alagna will sing Cavaradossi in London, then Gabriele in Simon Boccanegra at the Salzburg Festival. They will appear together in the Verdi Requiem with the Berlin Philharmonic and return to the Met in the fall of 2001 for La Boheme.

As for future roles, Gheorghiu would like to consider such operas as Luisa Miller, Don Carlo, Don Giovanni, Norma, Faust, and Manon--and Alagna says he wants to perform in all of the above, opposite her. He also wants to sing Werther again, but Gheorghiu finds the role of Charlotte unfulfilling and does not want to play it on stage. And yet their new recording of the Massenet opera is a source of pride for both of them. "Sometimes we sound like one voice when we sing together", says Alagna quietly, looking at his wife. "It's almost magical."

Bridget Paolucci is a writer and lecturer who specializes in opera.


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