Concert, Salle Gaveau, Paris, January 2001

Fourth tenor in need of a voice of his own
By Anna Picard, The Independent, 14 January 2001

In 1994, one plump Mexican, a slim Spaniard and an extremely large
Italian brought opera to the World Cup. Suddenly, gasp, opera was
popular (or at least the edited highlights of it were). The three
counter-tenors, the three sopranos and the three celtic tenors rushed to
fill the capacious wake of Domingo, Carreras and Pavarotti but it proved
to be an unrepeatable phenomenon. Seven years on, the fallout of rolling
three vastly different artists into one big blob of high emotion marked
"tenor" still casts a shadow over younger singers - and given the
maturity of Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti this is virtually any tenor
you will see on the stage today.

The "fourth tenor" is a meaningless soubriquet that can deliver the kiss
of death, the crock of gold, or both. The John Mark Ainsleys of this
world can flit from opera to lieder to early music without ever having
to worry about being labelled. Heldentenors and Rossinians can sing on
with nary a hint of rebranding. This role can only be filled by an
"Italian tenor" - ie the type who can sing the great romantic leads of
Puccini and Verdi while radiating sensitive virility (or, to be more
precise, the type who just don't sound quite right singing anything
else). Vargas, Cura and Alagna have all variously been hailed as the
"fourth tenor" but Alagna - a Franco-Sicilian - was the first to be
marketed as such. And boy, oh boy, has he sold a lot of records.

Whatever the restorers had done to the Salle Gaveau ("the Wigmore Hall
of Paris" as my host described it) appeared to be work in progress on
the night of Alagna's gala re-opening recital. It's a beautiful,
spacious, fin-de-siècle building with a bright, busy acoustic, but it
was hard to tell whether the pale grey interior was an attempt at the
post-industrial grace of SoHo or simply le undercoat. The staircases
still reeked of paint yet there was an undeniable buzz about the place;
TV crews bustled through the crowds and a scrum of autograph hunters
nudged against the awning outside. The reason for all this was not the
veteran conductor Anton Guadagno, nor was it the Orchestre des Concerts
Lamoureux (un ensemble vachement ropy). The fuss was because Paris's
favourite musical son was making a rare appearance in his home town in a
programme of barn-storming opera pops.

Paris being Paris, the concert started rather later than advertised but
when the golden boy finally appeared he brought the house down. In
common with his mink-clad audience, Alagna had chosen impact over
subtlety with an extraordinary outfit that recalled Mr Darcy in its
frilly cravat, Liberace in its glittery fabric, and Peter Stringfellow
in the crotch-hugging cut of its trousers. It was an extraordinary
programme too - a marathon of extremely demanding arias from Carmen,
Lucia, Pagliacci, Turandot and Mascagni's Bohème. A tough programme for
any tenor, not least because it started with an aria from Don Giovanni.
No, not Don Ottavio's sublime tenor aria Dalla sua pace but Don
Giovanni's very own baritone aria Deh vieni alla finestra. The one with
the mandolin. Hmmn.

Well, Alagna is nothing if not traditional. Fifty years ago it was
common practice for singers to plunder the repertoire of other voices,
but today, in an authenticity-obsessed age when baroque decorations can
be heard even at the Met, it's unusual to say the least. Alagna's warm,
expansive performance of the Don's serenade perfectly encapsulated (1)
his particular appeal (2) the pitfalls of that appeal, and (3) the theme
of his recital. An old-fashioned, somewhat innocent seductiveness.

Not since Mario Lanza won the heart of Ann Blyth in The Great Caruso has
a tenor worked harder to be liked. Alagna's naturally sunny, warmly
sentimental temperament pervades his singing and his characterisations -
all very well for the basically pleasant operatic heroes but problematic
when it comes to the venal, the weak, the ambivalent, the co-dependent,
or the psychotic. For all of the above, Alagna tends to use the same
approach - a kind of snarling, robust anger - and though I'm well aware
of the difference between a concert hall and an opera house, I think
that singing operatic arias requires some context, some sense of the
character's motives. To me at least, a totally sympathetic Don José
makes no sense in the Air de la fleur, no matter how beautifully it is
sung. Surely you have to have some sense of the instability of a
character who is about to stab the woman he is serenading?

Ah well, authenticity schmorthenticity. If you want Una furtiva lagrima
to sound even remotely furtive, Roberto Alagna is not the tenor for you.
But the aria from Halevy's La Juive was spectacular, Non piangere Liu
was breathtaking, and distracting as it was to be only three feet away
from and two feet lower than Monsieur Alagna's tight trousers and
spangled waistcoat (Row N is second from the front in the Salle Gaveau)
there was something incredibly exhilarating about hearing such a
powerful singer up close and seeing the lid of his soft palate flip up
to release the rich, golden high notes in the Tomb Scene from Lucia.

If Alagna's singing showed a certain lack of sophistication, the
orchestra a certain lack of competence and Guadagno a certain lack of
well-being (he tapped frantically at his heart during the fast
passages), the audience was rapturous nonetheless. Alagna's is not an
intellectual approach but he has a remarkable ability to charm. As far
as I'm concerned the jury is still out. It's a great voice - a broad,
generous, virile voice - but I wish he'd stop listening to historical
recordings. Whether he can successfully balance vocal power with
dramatic intelligence and his own sentimental instincts will depend
firstly on the people he brings together to advise him on interpretation
and secondly on finding a sound which is purely his. Not Bergonzi's or
Corelli's but Alagna's. If he can do this, there should be no stopping

© The Independent

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