Defiant tenor sings farewell to La Scala

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It would take talent to top what Roberto Alagna pulled off at La Scala last Sunday, when he thrust a defiant fist at the audience and stormed off stage during a starring performance in Aida, after the indignity of being booed.

But the Franco-Italian's talents are not in question. So it was that at 7.45pm on Thursday Mr Alagna, 43, came back to sing at La Scala - this time in the piazza outside, for the benefit of tourists, scribbling journalists, and the odd photographer. Nor did he sing any of the arias of the warrior Radames with which his understudy was about to regale the audience within. Instead, wearing a white scarf and clutching a rose, he launched into a heart-rendingly appropriate aria from Madame Butterfly. "Farewell, flowered sanctuary of happiness and love!" he sang.

Then he took a snap of La Scala with his mobile phone, "because I don't know when I will see it again". The tempestuous tenor, who with his wife Angela Gheorghiu, a star soprano, has set new benchmarks in prima donna tantrums, said he was prepared to sing inside but La Scala turned him down for breach of contract. It is the first time such a walkout has occurred in the often dramatic 230-year history of the opera house.

Once he had made his farewell gesture he declared the floor open to questions. "Farewell flowered La Scala?" suggested the reporter from La Stampa. "They let me know in the middle of the day that as far as they were concerned I no longer exist," he said. "Fair enough. Yet I stayed in Milan, because I made it clear that I was prepared to sing. I leave tomorrow." He was heading for Rome, he said, where the Aida director Franco Zeffirelli would be his host. "I leave with my head held high. The public is with me, and the public is always right. In France I am a hero!"

He also announced that he had instructed his lawyer to sue La Scala. Details of the intended suit emerged yesterday. Alagna claims he walked out of the opera because he was no longer able to continue, for medical reasons.

"I was fine when I started," he said by telephone from Milan's airport, "but this problem with my metabolism, if I am very emotional or stressed, my system consumes sugars very quickly. After that happened to me, the sugars went down dramatically, I couldn't stay on my feet, I had to sit. I didn't have the strength."

But the explanation cut no ice with La Scala, who said that Alagna had made no mention of feeling unwell. "If a singer is sick, he leaves the stage and tells the musical director and a doctor verifies the condition," said Carlo Marial Cella, a spokesman for the opera house. "We inform the audience and the understudy goes on stage."