Music on TV

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The Independent Culture
There's a real Roberto Alagna story to be told some day, but for now "The Star" - Sunday's opener to the Channel 4 Naked Classics series - will do nicely. Starting where The House left off, it put the genre's norms into reverse. Barely a note was sung to camera. Instead it entered a nether world of publicists, managers and record executives in which the tenor himself, like God, was often a presence to be inferred rather than directly observed.

For one who has served time watching these circles, it rang gruesomely true. It caught the authentic flavour of a recording session at the point of burnout, complete with nit-picking corrections, frayed voices and star walk-off. "It's very simple," the man from EMI dissembled, "Roberto, er, is tired tonight." In Paris, a peeved Jonathan Miller had his rehearsal two-timed in favour of an appearance at a government party, where in turn Alagna arrived too late to sing. Best of all was the New York publicist's search for a line that would turn Alagna into the Fourth Tenor. After devising a poster to sell him as a hunk who happened to make beautiful music, she decided his life was "a great Rocky story". Alagna came over on screen well enough, sparky and engaging, but if he is a hunk, I'm Ernest Hemingway.

"The Star" also had the flavour of an editorial line being cooked up, about the perils of pressure. Subtle at first, leaving the music business's own words to speak for it, the line came into its own once Miller had moaned that "we never know where we are with him". Vox pops at a New York Met interval all seemed to have bought it. One of them was allowed to call Alagna a nervous wreck, even though he had a cold and had already lost his voice once before the performance. The programme's final chilling caption read "Roberto now has a new agent".

You could read this two ways: either he wanted less "pressure", or better publicity than he was getting. There were no direct clues. Alagna seemed happy to go along with the lifestyle, driving through the night from a Lyon performance to a Paris rehearsal and bouncing back from his flop at the Met to launch his best-selling duets album. Anyway, on a world scale of pressures, the opera circuit scores quite low - two minutes of ITV's Hollywood Lovers on Wednesday night were enough to show what big- time stress is. Alagna looks as though he will survive, especially with the public support that broadcasts like this manufacture (even the Royal Opera learnt once more after The House that there's no such thing as bad publicity).

Try as it might, Naked Classics can't avoid being a part of the PR industry it criticises, but it is a big advance on the old-style portraits made in active collusion with record companies. EMI was cast in the Mephisto role, a corporate-sized blow-up of The House's Keith Cooper. The programme's director Henry Singer managed to catch a career on the brink of going out of control, just before the careerist noticed.

Alagna has what it takes to get a grip. Others are not so lucky.

BBC2 has stayed in the creative world proper for its Sound on Film series, also new this week (Tuesday), where composers and directors indulge in 15-minute collaborations. Pity about the running order: only viewers who didn't abandon the mix of pretension and cosiness in One in a Million will have seen Blight. Here John Smith let images of derelict houses and reiterated spoken memories convey the heartbreak of extending the M11, while Jocelyn Pook's score grew from drones to lyrical elegy. By deftly using Steve Reich's device of turning speech fragments into melody, the soundtrack provided an essential link between film and music and helped make a focused, integrated piece of work.

It felt especially powerful after Terry Braun's whimsical tale of a composer and daughter sketching scores and going out for lottery tickets - the numbers chosen by a musical device. Django Bates supplied a busy Third Stream-ish accompaniment that kept hopping between big-band harmonies and Sixties plinks, and appeared as a traffic warden. The music sounded stuck on as an afterthought, like improvising to a silent movie, and didn't touch the sense of inevitable binding together of sight and sound that Blight reached. It had to be, and was, an Arts Council commission, too unmotivated to exist except as a response to a funding scheme. Still, the Council should be pleased with this first instalment - one hit out of two is not a bad proportion for new music in any form.

Robert Maycock

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