Tenor Roberto Alagna is one of opera's biggest talents and most famous stars. Ever since his Royal Opera debut in 1992, he has been a regular visitor to Covent Garden and has enjoyed a warm relationship in this country with critics and public alike.
Initially branded with such monikers as 'the 4th Tenor' or 'the next Pavarotti' when he first came to prominence nearly 20 years ago, he quickly established himself as a major voice and personality in his own right, and he has been one of opera's first choice leading men ever since. His unusual musical background as a cabaret singer, and his high profile marriage to soprano Angela Gheorghiu have helped to make him a favourite interviewee with the press throughout his career to date, but such colourful, attention grabbing aspects aside, Alagna revealed himself to be a man of extraordinary vitality and passion, devoted to and in love with his art.
I met with him after a day of rehearsals for the revival of Francesca Zambello's production of Carmen which is due to open on 3 October. Alagna was in high spirits, 10 days into the rehearsal period which, he says, is going extremely well. In a demonstration of generosity towards his colleagues which seems typical of him, he immediately turned the attention to Elina Garanca, who is singing Carmen, of whom Alagna said 'She is amazing. I think she will be the most complete Carmen I have ever seen and a lot of people will be very surprised at her, because they are expecting her to be a little cold. There is an electricity between Garanca and me, we have a beautiful connection. Elina has a noble attitude which makes her attractive – you are obliged to be in love with her, and the voice is like honey and gold. She has class, with a beautiful feminine manner, but she can also be very strong, like a man. She is very magnetic, we have great chemistry on stage.'
Asked whether he likes the production, he replied: 'Yes, I like to work with Zambello. She came yesterday, and within two hours we made everything so powerful, with so much feeling. I also like the fact that she accepts ideas I propose and works closely with singers to make their interpretations individual. My Don José will be different from previous interpretations of Don José in this production. It is like having a suit made-to-measure.'
This is Alagna's first Don José in the UK. In a display of good humour, he remarked 'the production was planned for me originally but I asked Covent Garden to release me because I wanted to sing Aida at La Scala – maybe that was the wrong choice!', referring to the widely reported controversy surrounding his appearance in Milan. He is very happy to be performing the role here now, in what is his first Don José after a period of around 5 years. How does he feel about returning to the role after a long gap? 'I love it, because all the time the character grows from my own life experience. As you grow older, you think in a different way and you can bring this to your interpretation. This man is crazy because of love. Because of this he will destroy himself and also Carmen. For him, she is like a devil, and he wants to save the world and humanity from this devil. He is not such a naïve man, he is like a bomb ready to go off and that is what attracts Carmen. She likes danger and likes to play with danger and death.'
Turning our attention to Alagna's early years, I am curious to find out how his career began. It is well known that he worked as a cabaret singer in Paris, following which he won the Pavarotti competition in 1988, and went on to make his professional operatic debut as Alfredo in La Traviata the same year with Glyndebourne Touring Opera. Had he really never sung professional opera before taking on a major role with such an important company? 'I sang highlights of 5 operas in one week before that, but only with piano and without the big ensemble. But it was quite difficult, because it was Traviata, Romeo, Trovatore, Faust and Rigoletto. It was strange because I sang like a pop singer – I was famous as a pop singer and made CDs, and it was difficult for me to jump into the classical world after 8 years as a pop singer, but I was very happy because it was always my secret dream. It was at L'Ecole Normale in Paris, and it was the end of year student exams. Because they had no tenor on the course, they asked me to sing the tenor roles in the performances with the students. Even though I hadn't done the course, they said they should have given a diploma to me!'
He was 23 when he auditioned for Glyndebourne, and got the contract for Alfredo on the spot. Did he feel at all daunted? 'For me it was like the continuation of the cabaret – I approached it with the same spirit. On the day of the first show, I spent the whole day on the beach! The baritone said I was crazy, but for me, performing was something very normal. Now, I realise how difficult my job is, but then, I sang maybe too much – not only on stage, but backstage, at home, everywhere all the time, and I still do. I don't know how it has been possible to have sung so much in my whole life. I have sung for 28 years professionally. If some day I stop, I will die, I am sure. I never take holidays – after 1 week I get bored. Maybe I don't like to be in the real world, because reality has sometimes been very difficult and it is easier in this imaginary world where you can forget everything.'
I ask about how he chooses and schedules roles. 'I never plan anything. All the time I must be in love with the role, and with the whole work. If I am in love with the work, I will try it, even if somebody proposes something that might be too much for me. The difficulty for me is that I usually love everything, so it is very easy for companies to offer me new operas!' Having had a period where the emphasis seems to have been on heavier roles such as Manrico, Turridu, Canio and now Don José, does he consider the likes of Nemorino and Alfredo to be behind him? 'Not at all – I will do Nemorino here at Covent Garden in 2012. For me it is always interesting to see the difference from before. I don't like to put roles away forever. Even if I'm not good in the way I was before, I try to be as good as I can be with the instrument I have now. It will be an amazing season at Covent Garden for me in 2012, because I have L'Elisir and Aida. Throughout my career, I have always sung both heavy and lyrical pieces. When I sang Don Carlo I was only 29. When I sang Pagliacci for the first time I was 34. Last year at the Met, I sang Aida, Butterfly and Romeo. It is challenging, but you need that in life, it gives you a wonderful energy, and you feel so happy when you look back and can say what you have done.'
The diversity on which Alagna seems to thrive is set to continue, with many exciting things planned for future seasons. 'I will sing Massenet's Le Cid, my first Otello in Vienna with Maestro Chung who wants to try it with me, Adriana Lecouvreur, Francesca da Rimini, Gluck's Alceste in Paris, and Les Troyens which I am very happy about because for me it is maybe the masterpiece of opera, I love Berlioz.' Asked whether he ever sees himself diverging from the French and Italian repertoire for which he is famous, he replies 'when I was young, I asked to sing in French, and everybody said it wasn't possible because they said my voice was so Italian, but then I became known as the French tenor. I would like to sing in Russian, German, English – the problem for me is that so far I have only sung in languages which I understand very well. It is difficult to sing in a language where I don't understand not just the meaning of the words, but the music of the words. I would like to study some German repertoire. I have just made a small movie in which I sung a piece from Lohengrin and the beginning of Tannhauser. It was another world for me. It is wonderful to be a student again, to study another style and another sort of emission. I would like to study the German language but I don't have much time – I must find a very good teacher!'
In the age of Regietheater, where it can seem as if the director's concerns take precedence above all others, I ask if Alagna has ever had any negative experiences where he has been involved in productions which he dislikes. 'I have never been unhappy – I never ask who the director is when I accept a contract. I like the surprise, and when you have a collaborative relationship it is always a pleasure. I have never had a problem with a director.' How does he feel about the acting side of his job? 'Today it is very important to act more and more. I think opera singers are a sort of actor – you can't be an actor 100%, when you have to produce a top C, it is impossible to act in that moment. But you can be the character, and you can be very credible. You must put a lot of sincerity and generosity into what you do. If you are generous and sincere, people can believe in your character. When I play a new character, I try to be myself in that situation, and I think the audience can feel the sincerity of that. I also like simplicity of gesture and movement. You don't need to move a lot. I love actors like Marlon Brando – he stays so still for so long, and then when he moves, it is really powerful. I like to have real collaboration with colleagues, so that we are acting and reacting with each other, and then it can be different every night.'
When asked about future recording projects, the list is long and varied. 'They are releasing Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, L'Amico Fritz, and the DVD of Orphée of which I am very proud. I also have a new DVD of Sicilian repertoire coming out in November, a CD of jazz with a gypsy guitarist, and a DVD of melodies composed by my two brothers called 'L'invitation au voyage''. Some of these are studio recordings, while others are live. How different are the two approaches to recording for Alagna, and which does he prefer? 'For me it's the same. In the studio you can work more on detail, but then again you have a two-hour session and you have to do everything you can because everybody's time is expensive. It is not difficult to turn it on in the studio because you have everything in your mind, and the audience in that moment is the orchestra, the sound engineer – even if there is only one person, I sing for them as if I am singing for 10,000.'
To round off, I ask about current plans to return to Covent Garden, prior to his Nemorino and Radames in 2012, and Alagna confirms he will be in London for performances of Rodolfo in La Boheme and Ruggiero in La Rondine. Of the Royal Opera, he says 'I love this house, all the time when I am here I feel happy – the atmosphere, people are so kind. But I love to be in opera theatres, I am at home in the theatre'. The overriding impression he has created throughout our interview is of a man who loves his art utterly, and who thrives on the constant variety his packed schedule offers him. He confirms this himself when he says 'today I can feel full, full of happiness and full of serenity.' With such a fantastic body of work behind him, and so many exciting future projects lined up for the next few seasons, it looks more than likely that nobody will be remembering those tedious comparisons he had to put up with at the start of his career. We have much to look forward to from one of opera's most gifted, passionate and generous artists.
By John Woods
Roberto Alagna performs Don Jose in Bizet's Carmen at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from 3 October 2009.
Photos: copyright Alix Laveau, except the photo from the concert performance of L'Amico Fritz with Angela Gheorghiu, copyright Jeannette Handler
Interview with Francesca Zambello, who directed this production of Carmen
Interview with Elina Garanca, who plays Carmen in this production
DVD Review: Jonas Kaufmann in the original run of this production
Opera Review: A revival of this production in 2008
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