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Since I realised that I was born on the same day as Roberto Alagna (7 June 1963) I’ve followed his career, on and offstage, with a certain prurient curiosity; but then many people have, as his life has proved infinitely more action-packed than most! Starting as a Paris cabaret singer before winning the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition, he made a swiftseries of international debuts, notably La Scala in 1990, before really coming to international attention as a stylish Roméo at Covent Garden in 1994; after this he was established in the very top league and numerous triumphs followed. But it’s not all about the singing – his private life reads like an opera itself. Widowed in 1992, he married Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu onstage at the Met a couple of years later, and this is where the story lifts offas they became the most glamorous, talented and unreliable couple in opera, the scourge of directors the world over for their demanding behaviour. The biggest scandal to hit Alagna was at La Scala in 2007, where at the second performance of a much-anticipated production of Aida, he was booed and heckled from the gods after ‘Celeste Aida’ and consequently walked offstage, only for a replacement tenor to pass him in the wings on his way to continue the performance on his behalf; cue for a very entertaining international news story.

For years the couple sang together, their repertoire overlapping, but Alagna’s voice grew and he obviously had the urge to tackle new vocal challenges, whereas Gheorghiu has nurtured a handful of roles, safely touring them around the world. Then it all started to unravel as they became more famous for their offstage behaviour than their onstage achievements, culminating in an inevitable divorce in 2013 amidst claims of domestic violence on Gheorghiu’s part. But Alagna since has developed a relationship with the Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, and they recently had a baby – and although the press attention is ever-present, thankfully the whole story seems to have a much happier tone to it.

So what of Alagna the singer? His voice is immediately distinctive, with an open and clear core to the tone. Two releases showcase the tenor, Les 100 plus beaux airs de Roberto Alagna, and Robertissimo, which to a large extent overlaps in repertoire. They showcase French and Italian arias, religious and Christmas pieces plus Mexican and Sicilian numbers – something of a catch-all selection. The voice started out as a pure lyric tenor, as displayed by the aria from Roméo et Juliette or the Sérénade from La Jolie Fille de Perth, and has thickened over the years, with a first Otello beckoning at Orange this summer, which will surely be the cynosure of all operatic eyes. The French arias have the advantage not just of a native speaker but also the elegant yet forthright style of the best francophone singers, with a forward projection and no swallowed vowels. Listen to ‘Pays merveilleux’ from L’Africaine for a lesson in diction and line, the portamenti perfectly judged. The Italian arias have a forthright quality, the words carried on the line, the tone still open but not uncovered. He displays his interest in lesser known works with arias from Wolf-Ferrari’s Sly and Zandonai’s Giulietta e Romeo, as well as a rather overwrought cycle of five songs, Le dernier jour d’un condamné, by his brother David Alagna.

Alagna has also maintained a sideline as a popular singer, best illustrated on these releases by his Mexican songs (a tribute to Luis Mariano, in fact a Basque tenor), and several Sicilian songs, an interesting change to the ubiquitous Neapolitan. If you want to hear a completely different side to the tenor, listen to ‘Mexico’ (from Le Chanteur de Mexico) – its infectious melody and rhythm will give you earworm for days.

To sample Alagna’s onstage work try Werther in a DVD from Turin, in a highly traditional production by brother David. His poet isn’t so much a brooding intellectual as an innocent and wide-eyed optimist, almost seeing the world for the first time – in short an emotional accident waiting to happen. Vocally he is as one would hope, with an unfussy vocal line, the ability to build not just a phrase but a longer vocal paragraph and a high-lying placement that takes him securely through the passaggio to a thrilling top. Kate Aldrich is a sensitive Charlotte, her softmezzo proving mettlesome when required. Natalie Manfrino (Mrs David Alagna – it’s a family affair) is a charming Sophie and Marc Barrard a solid Albert. Ernest Van Dyke, who created Werther, also sang in the first performance of Lohengrin in Paris; is this perhaps a direction that the ever-ambitious Alagna could follow now his voice as at its mature peak?

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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