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The Singing World's Golden Couple?
by Norman Lebrecht / February 16, 2000
THE Alagnas are splitting up, one hears. Word of their separation has been spreading like greenfly on the musical grapevine. My date to see the celebrated lovebirds gets changed at the last minute to separate interviews, two months apart. Angela Gheorghiu sits alone before Christmas on a sofa in Chelsea, Roberto Alagna confronts me in February across a Mayfair coffee table. A less prudent ornithologist might be tempted to give credence to the rumours of a rift.
Totally false, of course. For the record, Angela Gheorghiu, 34, and Roberto Alagna, 37, are as closely entwined as they have been since they fell for each other at Covent Garden while Alagna was singing Gounod's Roméo et Juliette in October 1994. Alagna's wife had just died of cancer and his performance possessed an almost unendurable pathos; Gheorghiu had a Romanian husband, but he got somehow mislaid. They became opera's golden couple, the future of the genre. "The public," said Alagna, "is lucky to have us."
What has changed lately is that both feel the need to assert a greater individuality. They are singing more solo dates and fewer duets. "We are like three artists," explains Gheorghiu. "There is Roberto, there is Angela, and there is the third artist, the couple. That is not easy to manage."
He is the most expressive of romantic tenors, she the most dramatic of current sopranos; together, they make an explosive package.
"We are never apart longer than 10 days, that's our golden rule," insists Alagna. "We never want to be apart."
Such devotion is rare in the fickle annals of opera - unique, in fact, since the Victorian romance of Giovanni Mario and Giulia Grisi, who were partners in song as in life from 1839 to Grisi's death 30 years later. What the Alagnas are travelling, therefore, is an unmapped road roamed by sinister forces who, in Gheorghiu's view, lie in wait to sandbag the love-struck innocents.
There is a Nelsonian myopia to her flat refusal to consider that they might ever have been the cause of their own misadventures. Expelled by Riccardo Muti from La Scala, dumped by the Met from Traviata, dubbed "Bonnie and Clyde" by the director Jonathan Miller, Gheorghiu insists that these are calumnies invented by others who are trying to climb on their bandwagon.
"They use us to make publicity for themselves," she complains. "If it's Angela and Roberto, it's more interesting." The Met, she points out, has re-engaged her for Traviata. Miller, when they last worked together, "never said anything bad about me and Roberto". Every minor tiff, she maintains, is leaked to the press and whipped into a frenzy.
Alagna sounds less bothered. "It's nobody's fault," he says. "It's the fault of our success. You cannot have a great success without scandal. In the history of opera, every success was accompanied by scandal."
Really? I demurred. What about Joan Sutherland? "Joan Sutherland was not a great success," declares Alagna. "Ask anyone in the street who is Joan Sutherland and they wouldn't know. Alfredo Kraus, the same. The only success is popular success like Bocelli, Maria Callas, Caruso." Alagna has been studying recordings of Callas, made when she was Gheorghiu's age: "I must tell you that Angela was much better, more expressive and beautiful, even more dramatic."
It is attitudes such as these that make the golden couple, who married in 1996, less popular with their colleagues than they are perhaps on the street. The hauteur is underpinned by an entourage only fractionally smaller than Mike Tyson's. Gheorghiu travels with a personal assistant called Alexander; Alagna is looked after by his sister; weeks before a premiere they are joined by a vast extended family, occupying several suites. In New York they retain Herbert Breslin, a publicist who for years fomented rivalry between his client Pavarotti and his ex-client Domingo. Their record company, EMI, pumps a fortune into promotion.
The Alagnas are not exactly defenceless, yet they like to appear embattled. Their fear of criticism has become so great that neither can bear to read a newspaper. 'It's because we are sensitive,' explains Alagna. "Why should I let it make me feel bad? I'm not sado-maso. It can destroy you."
When they enter an opera house the air curdles with tension. There are three or four conductors with whom they work peaceably, among them Antonio Pappano, Covent Garden's next music director. They have a wide-eyed veneration for Franco Zeffirelli and they spend most nights off listening to other singers. "We love opera, just like you," says Gheorghiu.
Back at Covent Garden this month for a revival of their trademark Roméo et Juliette, both have been shaped, if not softened, by cruel fate. They now bring up Alagna's daughter, Ornella, alongside Gheorghiu's niece, Uana, whose mother was killed in an accident. Gounod's opera has become the route map of their lives. "Roméo is a role that is so complete, so rich, I always find new aspects,' says Alagna. "The character evolves with me."
It also enables him to see Gheorghiu in an unnatural light. "It's wonderful to live with a woman who has the same occupation as you," he marvels. "It's not your wife that you see but something else, a combination. You fall in love with her all over again. If you have had a little dispute at home, the moment you go on stage it vanishes. I don't know what it is, the magic of the music, or the voice, but it's a new love. I'd recommend it to every couple."
His naïvety is as charming as her public mien is forbidding. She is all wary control, while he frolics in search of new sensations. He used to sing in a Paris café, seven nights a week. She went straight from a Bucharest academy to the stage of the ROH. What they have in common is a driving ambition and an impregnable fortress that can shut out the world and all its barbs. "I do my career," says Gheorghiu. "I give my best. I always want to give pleasure. And the stories are . . . just stories."
That both possess star quality is beyond question. Alagna may even be right about his wife outshining Callas. What they lack is the redeeming gift of humility, an urge to be at the service of art. When I ask Alagna for an artistic credo, he laughs. "An artistic credo means nothing," he says "It means getting up in the morning, seeing if the voice is fresh and deciding if you are going to sing."
Neither of them bothers to check their interpretations with a teacher, a maestro or anyone but each other. They listen intently to old recordings, which Alagna searches for qualities of expression that he finds as much in Bing Crosby and Jacques Brel as he does in Caruso. Jon Vickers is, surprisingly, something of an idol.
A competitive element pervades their outlook. One tenor or soprano has to be better or greater than all others. It is never enough to be a Sutherland or a Kraus.
And that gives them the edge in the singing league. Miller was wrong to call them Bonnie and Clyde. There is nothing quixotic or uncalculating about their progress. In a vocation full of self-doubt and high risk, Alagna and Gheorghiu are the Beckham and Posh of the opera stage.
Coda: David Beckham is Manchester United's star soccer player. He is married to Posh Spice, a pop star. Neither is possessed of a bashful or retiring personality. Both appear to enjoy celebrity more than they do footballing or singing, and both are intensely competitive, jealous of their place in the sun. They are here because they are here. What they do is less important than what they are. In the modern cult of celebrity, art is but a route to an end.
Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]