Verdi Requiem, Birmingham & London, December 1997

Replacement value
Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times, 21 December 1997

Alagna stood in for Pavarotti in Verdi's Requiem, while a young Peruvian
shone in Donizetti.

A double deficit of tenors hit two high-profile musical events this
week. The great Luciano Pavarotti was to have made two rare - for him -
appearances as one of the soloists in legit concert-hall performances of
Verdi's Requiem (Symphony Hall, Birmingham, last Monday, the Festival
Hall two days later), but an illness contracted at the end of a run of
Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore in Naples forced a last-minute
cancellation. Meanwhile, the Royal Opera, preparing the first-ever
performance (in concert, also at the RFH) of Donizetti's Elisabetta similarly lost their
leading man, the younger Italian tenor, Giuseppe Sabbatini, a specialist
belcantisto like Pav in his salad days.

It is usually impossible to replace megastars at short notice, but the
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus managed to secure Roberto Alagna who,
by a stroke of luck, is currently singing the small role of Macduff in
the new Scala production of Verdi's Macbeth: if it had been Rodolfo or
the Duke of Mantua, it would, I imagine, have been a different story.
Stepping in for illustrious colleagues can sometimes prove hazardous,
but on this occasion it was worth the risk, for the Franco-Sicilian
tenor brought a balance to the solo quartet - soprano Jane Eaglen, mezzo
Luciana D'Intino and basso Roberto Scandiuzzi were his colleagues - that the
heavyweight Pavarotti might have upset.

In the opening Kyrie, Alagna's grainy tone seemed a bit raw and forced,
but by the Quid sum miser the vocal cords were beginning to sound well-oiled,
and he treated the audience to some exquisite mezza voce - every
"hairpin" crescendo and diminuendo registered - that Verdi's meticulously marked
score demands, but rarely gets, from star tenors. After a wobble at the
beginning of the Ingemisco he continued to strike gold with his virile tone, eloquent
delivery of the text and close attention to Verdi's small print.

He was not the only star of the evening: sharing pride of place were the combined
Philharmonia and City of Birmingham Symphony Choruses, whose voices rang
out resplendently into Symphony Hall yet were able to reduce the volume
to a pin-dropping pppp when asked. The conductor was the flamboyant
music director of New York's Metropolitan Opera, James Levine: his is a
shamelessly showbiz reading of Verdi's mass - pulling out all the
trumpet stops in Tuba mirum - but he has you on the edge of your seat
throughout. Apart from Alagna, the soloists were a slight
disappointment: D'Intino and Scandiuzzi have fine, properly Italianate
voices, but they do so little with them. The bass ostentatiously carried his score
without opening it: if he had, he might have noticed that his part is not written
mezzo-forte to fortissimo from start to finish. Eaglen has the right dramatic-soprano
equipment for the top line, but it is beginning to sound worn - all those Brunnhildes
and Turandots? - and she has a real problem sustaining pitch: her climactic top C
near the close of the Libera me teetered perilously around B-flat. It would be sad if this
imposing singer's star is already on the wane, but she may have been unwell:
a discreet cough before the final section may have been a telltale sign. [...]

This page was last updated on: July 26, 2002