Saturday, May 15, 2010
Roberto Alagna: A Popular (And Controversial) French Tenor
Roberto Alagna is still a relatively young, and certainly very popular French tenor, born in 1963 in Clichy-sous-Bois, France. His parents were Sicilian immigrants into France (hence the Italian name) but he is thoroughly French: born, raised and educated in France. As a young man, he was largely a café singer, without much in the way of formal training. Clearly possessing a first class voice, of considerable range and power, he moved fairly easily and obviously to opera, and made his debut as Alfredo in 1988, with the Glyndebourne touring opera company. His rise to fame was fast. There have not been many first rate tenors from France since the days of Georges Thill. He was soon in demand everywhere. His biography is easily consulted, and Youtube is fairly alive with his videos. We can move directly to a discussion.
There is no more typical or well known role for a French tenor than Faust. This has always been the case, and it is a good place to start. Faust's big aria, "Salut demeure, chaste et pure," is one of the best known in opera, and it has been a near career-wrecker since it was written. The exposed high C, at the aria's climax, was actually written by Gounod, as opposed to being interpolated by singers. French tenors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries took the big note in head voice, which had long been a French tradition. Even Thill, in the 20's took the note in head voice, something that is seldom if ever done today. Here is Alagna, in 2004 at Covent Garden, in this famous aria. You will note the crowd's reaction at the end, in a house known for its ability to turn to ice at the least slip by even the greatest of singers (most notably Maria Callas):
There have been few French tenors, historically, who can produce a climactic high C in that particular aria as successfully as Alagna does. The range is rock-solid, from top to bottom. He is also a very handsome man, and his stage presence is striking, at least in this formalized setting, where Alagna, in my opinion, is at his best and least controversial. When he sticks within the French repertoire, in traditionally produced operas, which is where he belongs in my opinion, he is virtually without serious competition.
Here he is with Bryn Terfel, the great Welsh bass-baritone, in one of the most beautiful arias ever written, known by all opera lovers, the duet from the Pearl Fishers:
It is very beautiful, very authentic, and, as in the case of the Faust aria, vociferously applauded by the audience. I think it is important to observe that these videos are, respectively, from Covent Garden and the Met. These are important opera audiences. I say this because I want to stress the degree of his success and the level at which he sings. And this brings us naturally to the other side of Alagna. He is disliked by a significant number of people. Most will remember the fiasco as La Scala a few years ago, when, in a production of Aida, the notorious loggionisti decided to give him a hard time after his rendering of "Celeste Aida," for reasons that have never been entirely clear but which may have been as politically as musically motivated. Most singers who run afoul of these ill-mannered boors simply ignore them. Alagna, however, is rather temperamental and thin-skinned, and made the devastating mistake of walking off stage, pretty much bringing the opera to a halt until some understudy, score in hand, in his Levis, moved on stage to somehow get the show through the first act. Alagna was banned for life from La Scala as a result of this outburst. It must also be said that a few months later he did Aida at the Met, and was received with a standing ovation at the end of the opera. Music as blood sport.
The controversy runs deeper, however. This final video, from Romeo and Juliet, is very long and I do not expect anyone to watch it all the way through. In fact, if you have just eaten, it might be a good idea not to. The first couple of minutes tell the story:
Well, I'm sure you get the idea.
La Rochefoucauld once observed that "Some people have more intelligence than taste, others more taste than intelligence; but there are more quirks and variations in taste than in intelligence." And so it would seem. When I was growing up, in the 1950's, opera, at least in New York, was a pretty standard and largely predictable business: Traviata, Cavalleria, Pagliacci, Carmen, Rigoletto, Tosca, Andrea Chenier, Turandot, La Boheme, Masked Ball, Rigoletto, Trovatore; all the heavy-duty verismo-tending standard repertoire. Now, something like atomic fission has taken place—the atom that was opera is split. Much energy has been released, and some it is taking curious forms. We see world-wide performances of Orfeo ed Euridice, Julius Caesar, Rodelinda, Europa Riconosciuta, Mitridate, and many, many other 18th century operas, which are finding an increasingly large audience. Male altos abound again, as they once did. On the other hand, we have extremely "modern" stage settings of formerly standard repertoire favorites. I think of this as a post-verismo phenomenon, trying now not only to be "realistic" in the standard sense of the word, but avant-garde, often to the extent of trying to outdo popular culture and its quasi-pornographic obsessions. This seems to me like a Rococo flash of convoluted confusion, spelling danger for "realistic" opera in general. God, was there ever anything "real" about opera!?
These tasteless stage settings do not do opera any good, and they bring a dubious kind of attention to Alagna. This is a shame, because he is a good and popular opera star, fulfilling a long-felt need for another great French tenor. With so much going for him, why settle for what is clearly second-rate, transitory trendiness?
at 3:45 PM