First there were the three tenors - then came the bricklayer's son

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The Independent Online
Most singers would give their eye teeth to be hotly promoted by a record company, but a television documentary this week offers a chilling insight into the reality of life for opera's latest discovery, Roberto Alagna.

EMI wants this dashing son of a bricklayer is to be the "fourth tenor" in succession to Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo. But viewers of the Channel 4 film this Sunday will be left wondering how anyone can stand up to the schedule such stardom requires.

For EMI, 33-year-old Alagna is a publicist's dream. Born in Paris and discovered in a pizzeria, he had no contact with professional opera until his mid-twenties. After the death of his first wife he got engaged to the beautiful Romanian opera singer, Angela Gheorghiu.

Aimee Gautreau of Angel EMI records reveals his great attraction: "Not only is he a great tenor, he's a hunk. When we first became aware of Alagna's relationship with Angela our first reaction was 'this is a great love story and we should use this'. It's a story the entertainment press is going to want."

In Channel 4's film, Alagna does no less than four recordings for EMI in a year, squeezed into a schedule which never appears to let up. He races from one country to the next trying to fit interviews, launches, rehearsals and recordings around preparation for his much-hyped debut at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York.

At one point he meets the tenor whom EMI is grooming him to replace. Pavarotti asks after Alagna's career. "Piano, piano," says Alagna. "Piano forte!" jokes Pavarotti.

But the strain is showing. Alagna walks out during a recording of Romeo et Juliette with Gheorghiu in Toulouse. Days later he is forced to drive overnight to Paris to rehearse Jonathan Miller's La Boheme. When he arrives he realises he is also booked to sing at a government party. He cancels the rehearsal and arrives at the party, only to find he is too late to perform.

Miller is displeased. "The more highly paid and famous these people become, the faster and looser they play with the schedule," he tells the cameras.

Still the pressure increases with Alagna working 20-hour days in a bid to "please everyone". Later he is forced to cancel performances at Covent Garden, New York and Geneva, citing exhaustion.

Meanwhile, the crucial first night at the Met in April does not go well; Alagna has a cold. The audience are unforgiving. "He's supposed to be the fourth tenor, and that wasn't the voice of the fourth tenor," says one, interviewed during the intermission.

Alagna walks off stage, and the atmosphere is that of a wake, and the film shows Gheorghiu racing after his dejected figure. Back at EMI, however, the executives plot on. They do not see his botched United States debut as a problem, and they have a new idea to market his rags to riches rise.

"It's a great Rocky story. I think we should play up on that," says one woman. "Good planning," agrees another.

A poll of 1,300 listeners to Classic FM radio revealed yesterday that EMI's promotion of Alagna was not a success - he received four votes to his wife's six and did not make the top 10 ranking, headed by the Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling, who died in 1960. Domingo came third after the soprano Maria Callas, who died in 1977, while neither Pavarotti nor Carreras made the top 10. The Classic FM presenter Hugh Macpherson said it was "extremely telling that our opera buffs have voted resoundingly for performers of the past".