Passions run high at the opera as tenor tries to kill TV profile

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Tonight Channel 4 screens a fly-on-the-wall profile of the new opera heart-throb Roberto Alagna, showing the highs and lows of a stupendous seven months which saw the singer, dubbed "the fourth tenor", triumph in an opera which critics thought he was foolish to take on.

It also prys into a less-than-overwhelming debut at the New York Met, and implicitly criticises a too-eager schedule which left the star exhausted and in bad voice. Its subject reportedly "went ballistic" when he saw the results.

Alagna said last week: "I have seen this film and it is not right. I still want to get it stopped." But Channel 4 are pressing ahead with the screening, the first in the Naked Classics series, despite having received a writ from Alagna's agent alleging breach of copyright. "We regard the writ to be fundamentally misconceived and it will be robustly defended. We can only assume that the writ is intended to stop the show. It will not succeed," said the series' producer, Nicolas Kent.

Of the film-makers, Alagna was reported as saying: "I thought they were my friends. But now I see how they use the camera to tell a lie."

Alagna's chief gripe is the handling of his fateful first night in La Boheme at New York's Met last April. There is an interval vox pop of decidedly negative comments, of which the kindest is "he's noivus".

What viewers will see is a curtain call, after which a grumpy-looking Alagna takes his final bow to respectable, if not overwhelming applause. The camera follows him and his co-star and wife, the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, as they pick their way disconsolately through the commiserating throng in the wings, then, after a cut, make their way back to the dressing room. Gheorghiu pleadingly waves the camera away.

Contrary to the impression given that this is the end of the performance, Alagna claims that the sequence shows them in the interval after a disappointing first act: "At the final curtain, we had much acclaim but this is not in the film."

Kent and the programme-maker, Henry Singer, vehemently deny this, insisting that,owing to union restrictions, the crew were not permitted to film backstage at all until the final curtain. "It was all one take, though there is a cut for time reasons. If you look at the Met sequence as a whole, it's extremely fair. We show the doctor explaining about Alagna's cold, and we show Joseph Volpe, the general manager, pointing out that 27 years ago another tenor made a disappointing debut in La Boheme. His name was Pavarotti," said Singer.

About the "biased" vox pop, Singer maintained: "The comments we used were absolutely representative. We originally asked critics for their views, but we felt it was fairer just to get the mood on the night, because the critics were actually more damning than the audience." One disgruntled punter likens Alagna's handling of a high note to a frog. "I kept this in to show the intolerable pressures placed on performers by a particular type of opera buff."

Both Kent and Singer express bewilderment that this short sequence has caused such offence. "It's fairly clear that this is a charismatic, warm individual who deserves to be a star," says Singer. In an emotional scene Alagna - the son of a Sicilian bricklayer who has had no formal training - surprises his elderly Cuban teacher Rafael Ruiz, who promptly bursts into tears. Other touching scenes include the singer romping with his young daughter.

But there are also incidents which betray forgetfulness, stress and over-booking, as when he leaves his furious director, Jonathan Miller, in the lurch at rehearsal because he has to go and perform at a society party, then turns up there too late to sing. As the singer frankly admits, a life where you eat breakfast in Paris, lunch in London and dinner in New York, makes it difficult to sustain good work.

But, as the film also makes clear, there are times when Alagna effortlessly justifies the high hopes of his managers and minders, as when he triumphs at the Chatelet in Paris as Don Carlos, which many critics thought was a role too far for the 32-year-old star.

Ironically, a profile which mixes good and bad in an attempt at a rounded portrait can cause more offence than a hatchet job. "It seems clear that at some stage Alagna thought, having collaborated in the making of this film, that he somehowhad editorial control. It is not Channel 4's policy to give editorial control to the subject of a documentary, or change anything at their demand except for reasons of factual accuracy," said Kent.