Crisp new tenor

PROFILE : Roberto Alagna The young star's rise could be the plot of an opera. But will he last? By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

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"NOW there is a Fourth Tenor," one critic wrote last November after Roberto Alagna had sung Romeo in Gounod's operatic version of Shakespeare. Alagna has enjoyed an astonishing success in an astonishingly short space of time. Still only 32, he has the operatic world at his feet - or rather, on its feet, as when he sang the part of Rodolfo in La Boheme at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden last week. The late Philip Hope-Wallace once recalled how Gigli, another Italian lyric tenor, could achieve a high C which "right at the back of the gallery enveloped you in its beauty, as if the tiny frog-shaped figure on stage had reached up and stroked your ear". Last week, in the same part, Alagna caressed the listener's ear as Gigli once did. The grapevine had been humming for a couple of years past. Now a star was truly born; people queued for two hours just in the hope of returns.

Not only audiences but critics, harder to please than the paying public, have most of them gone overboard. Alagna is "full of bravura, with a ringing top", one wrote. "His tenor is gaining power by the year and he is not afraid to use it at full throttle." Those words could have been used, and doubtless were, of those other great Italian tenors - Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras - in their prime. But is the hype justified? Will Alagna really become one of the greats or is he just another example of our modern hunger for the instant star?

THE story so far is a wonderful mix of tragedy and romance. It is not only a public relations dream; the plot is worthy of one of the great operas. Our new Italian tenor is actually French rather than Italian by birth, but his father was a Sicilian bricklayer who had gone to work in Paris, so Roberto can be reckoned at least as Italian as some members of the Irish soccer team are Irish.

He has no musical background, except what comes naturally to a Sicilian; he has almost no musical training; and, though he was first inspired by hearing Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso at 14, he had no contact with the world of professional music until his mid-twenties. He knew early on that he had a voice, but not what to do with it, or where.

Then comes a scene from one of the cornier Hollywood movies where a star is picked from the chorus line. Roberto finds himself singing for his supper in a Paris pizzeria. It's a gruelling way of making a living. All night until the place closes at 5am he works his way through the sort of "lollipops" which make the more fastidious sort of opera queen curl his lip (but which Caruso and Gigli used to sing happily enough), operatic hits interspersed with the sentimental songs that made the Bay of Naples notorious.

One evening the pizza-munchers by chance include Gabriel Dussurget, founder of the Aix-en-Provence festival, now in his eighties but still a fine judge of voice. Dussurget is transfixed. He arranges to meet the marvellous boy, arranges for him also to meet an agent, and they fix an audition. Not for a French or Italian company but (for reasons not entirely clear, though with satisfactory enough results) for Glyndebourne far away in Sussex.

Glyndebourne has a matchless record of spotting young talent, partly because it can't afford the fees of established stars. Alagna was signed up. But when his French agent proclaims "ses debuts sur scene au Festival de Glyndebourne" there is a slight case of suggestio falsi. He made his debut in fact with the admirable Glyndebourne Touring Company in 1988, singing in La Traviata not on the South Downs but in Plymouth and Liverpool.

His voice was truly remarkable, the sort no one forgets in a hurry. One critic referred a little disobligingly to his frightful wig, knowing no doubt that it was poor Alagna's own hair, but that aside it was unstinting praise all the way.

Appropriately enough, given his origins, Alagna has bridged the Italian and French repertories. In 1992 he made his debut at Covent Garden as Rodolfo, and then sang Romeo "with ultra-distinction" in one critic's words, a "tour de force of elegance and poetic lyricism". It was that performance last autumn which won him a Laurence Olivier award for outstanding achievement.

The librettist who concocted Alagna's story did not neglect heartbreak and romance. While his career blossomed, Alagna's personal life was desolated by the illness of Florence, his young wife and mother of his infant daughter. Stricken with a brain tumour, she died last year, her death echoing those of so many other doomed girls in the operas Alagna sings.

Late last year another much-heralded young artist also sang at Covent Garden. The young Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu enjoyed a brilliant success in La Traviata. She and Alagna had sung together in London a couple of years earlier, in La Boheme.

Now nature imitated art. Just as Rodolfo and Mimi fall for each other, to the most blatantly erotic music in all opera, so Roberto and Angela came together off stage as well as on. They will next sing together - this gets even cornier - in Romeo and Juliet at the New York Met next season. "They are so in love they want to hold hands everywhere together, even on stage," said one close observer. Perhaps they will become the Branagh and Thompson of the opera world.

They are now planning to live in London. "England, Angela, Covent Garden, EMI - it is like one big love affair," says Alagna. "That is why we want to make our home here - also for me to learn better English." It should be added that none of the gushing tributes to this union has mentioned the small obstacle of Angela Gheorghiu's present husband, but that presumably has been overcome.

WHERE, people ask, have the great Italian lyric tenors gone? What has happened to the noble line that stretched back from Carlo Bergonzi to Guiseppe di Stefano to Gigli to Schipa to Caruso himself? The national types and their sub-species, it is said, have almost vanished in the age of jet-travel opera when you can hear the same cast in the same opera in London, Milan, Munich and New York. And there are not enough good singers any more. There are not enough Wagner heroic tenors to sing the punishing roles of Tristan and Siegfried, not enough French singers who sound identifiably French.

As for Italian tenors, there are singers around who can make a lot of noise, but quite without the elegance and grace we are still privileged to hear on older recordings. There are too many tenors who are, in a hallowed operatic line, more can belto than bel canto. Luciano Pavarotti is certainly a very remarkable singer, who can make a great deal of noise which is handsome enough in its way. Yet Hope-Wallace wrote more than 20 years ago that, brilliant as Pavarotti was, he had a long way to go before he became another Schipa or Gigli. Many would say he never did.

Does the same fate await Alagna? As football managers understand, superstars are good for business; opera promoters need to market glamour like everyone else. And Alagna, with his film-star looks, shows that not all tenors need be fat and foolish-looking. Even those who decline to join the crescendo of applause prefer not to be quoted by name. "He's good, but how good?" said one eminent critic. "The earth didn't move for me when he sang Romeo." Alagna has come a very long way by his sheer innate gifts, but it is from now on that his lack of training may begin to tell. Singers do burn out, and recently there have been well-attested cases of singers who have been brought on much too early, been inflated by the great publicity machine, and been finished too young.

But Alagna seems intelligent enough to understand this. He is thoughtful about technique, describing the way he sings, legato without the once- fashionable portamento, and saying, "I prefer it. We cannot just live in the past." Which isn't to say that he is unaware of the past. On the contrary, he calls Gigli "my teacher", and says that whenever he feels his voice tightening he listens to Gigli "and my voice opens up". Certainly that's a better exemplar than some more recent tenors.

For one reason and another, the days of Gigli are gone. So maybe are the days of the pure tenore di grazia, or of the singer who concentrates on a particular Fach (a term used in the opera world and derived from the German for "category") or a narrow repertory. Roberto Alagna has shown that he can stroke ears in the gallery as a spinto tenor in Puccini, a true French tenor in Gounod. Verdi's Don Carlos awaits him at the Royal Opera next year.

He may yet justify the bravos and silence the sceptics, just as he may live happily ever after with his Violetta, in defiance of the plot of La Traviata. But only as long as he keeps away from arenas, remembers that big money isn't the same as true success, and never acquires a big white hankie.

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