Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]
Nobody in the casting room expected a happy ending. When opera’s rising tenor fell in love at Covent Garden 12 years ago with the most ferocious soprano since Maria Callas, the Sunday supplements came out in a flutter and dewy-eyed opera lovers were promised an idyll of spousal pairings – Mrs and Mrs Romeo and Juliet, Samson and Delilah, Pelleas and Melisande – a stage romance unexampled since Grisi and Mario toured the world in the high Victorian era.
Those who worked with Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu were less ecstatic. The couple, self-absorbed and acting as if by divine right, treated colleagues haughtily and assistants like dirt. They were banned twice from the Metropolitan Opera in New York and, backstage behaviour apart, never aroused a fervour to match their hype. Gheorghiu once walked out of a Carmen over a wig dispute; she cut Tosca rehearsals at Covent Garden last summer, ahead of an insipid performance. The pair have registered their names as trademarks to kill off independent fanzines. Associates refer to them as Posh and Becks or, in Jonathan Miller’s appellation, Bonny and Clyde. Some say the only opera they should be singing is Macbeth.
This weekend the scales finally fell and the opera world turned its back on the crested pair. At La Scala on Saturday night, Alagna walked off stage after singing Radames’s great aria ‘Celeste Aida’ for no reason other than a burst of booing – an occurrence as predictable in Milan as rain in Manchester. While the rest of the cast continued singing to an empty space, a muscular understudy, Antonello Palombi, was thrust on in crumpled black shirt and jeans to play out the rest of the first act, his voice fuller and more suited to the part than the celestial personage he had replaced.
At his next entry, decked in full armour, Palombi drew ovations while Alagna, fulminating to the paparazzi that he and Angela would never cross the Scala threshold again, was no more than unprofessional memory. ‘In many years at La Scala,’ said the admirably controlled conductor Riccardo Chailly, ‘I have never seen anything like what happened tonight.’
No-one, in Italy or anywhere else, can remember a singer walking off a major stage in mid-performance because of adverse audience reaction. Callas stood at the edge of the Scala apron in Anna Bolena and glared down catcalls from fans of her rival, Renata Tebaldi. Luciano Pavarotti, barracked for cracked notes, beamed beatifically on his detractors. At the Met last week, Placido Domingo was booed for conducting sluggishly for the pert soprano, Anna Netrebko. Good trouper that he is, he took it with a wry grin.
La Scala, a hot-blooded house, is the crucible of Italian opera. It is also a bear-pit where organised claques of covertly paid supporters orchestrate applause for favoured artists and hostility for strangers. The company officially denies the existence of such loggionisti, but singers continue to provide them with free tickets and pocket money. Alagna, who had not sung there in a decade, was warned that he might face dissent as an underpowered pretender to Pavarotti’s vacant crown.
On the season’s opening night, last Thursday, a 15-minute ovation for Franco Zeffirelli’s Cecil B De Mille staging of Verdi’s pyramid piece was marred by isolated boos for the French-Sicilian tenor. On his second performance on Saturday night, his big number was greeted by a solo ‘bravo!’ from somewhere in the house. This elicited a burst of hissing, directed in part at the lone fan and mostly at Alagna himself. ‘There was definitely a claque against him,’ one eyewitness told me, ‘but that was no excuse for what he did. The thing is, he should not have been singing Radames. His voice is not big enough.’
In fact, Alagna had originally been down to sing the more delicate role of Don Jose in Francesca Zambello’s Covent Garden Carmen last weekend, only to take a better offer from La Scala before the production was announced. This kind of shilly-shallying is fairly common but it leaves a bad taste when an artist does it too often – and Mrs Alagna, the redoubtable Gheorghiu, has underlined their capriciousness by doing exactly the same to the ROH, dumping out of next season’s Don Carlos before contracts were finalised.
Together, the pair have now achieved an apogee of unpopularity that unites three of the world’s big five opera houses, leaving just Paris and Vienna to pick up the pieces of a couple who appear to be once again on advanced self-destruct.
Alagna, 43, was dropped by his record label, EMI, after a run of poor sales and, while taken up by Deutsche Grammophon, he has seen himself overtaken in the tenor stakes by Rollando Villazon and Juan-Diego Florez, both a decade younger and easier on the eye, as well as being a lot easier on the nerves of opera managers and fellow-singers. Gheorghiu, 41, has the gorgeous Netrebko breathing down her neck.
Can the Macbeths bounce back? The one quality neither of them lacks is resilience. Gheorghiu, daughter of a Rumanian rail worker, clawed her way to the forefront with a clean vocal attack and a dramatic intensity unseen since Callas. Alagna, discovered by a vocal coach in a Paris pizza parlour, lost his first wife to cancer some weeks before meeting Angela, who lost her sister in a tragic accident two years after. Together, they have raised his daughter and her orphaned niece in tight-knit, impermeable privacy. Their human priorities are all in the right place. It is only when they come into contact with the music machine that they turn into ruthless ego-maniacs, humourless and wilfully self-inverted.
Despite tittle-tattle of marital splits, they have stood solid for a dozen years against a world that they perceive as innately hostile. Angela has brains enough for two singers and a knack of defusing crisis with charm. Alagna, on his own, is a collision waiting to happen. ‘I didn’t sing badly,’ he protested in one of many after-match interviews in Milan. ‘I don't think so because everybody on La Scala’s staff, or La Scala’s orchestra told me I sang like a God. Unless they were all lying to me.’
The next act is almost upon us. Alagna, having second thoughts, is said to be planning to turn up at La Scala tomorrow afternoon (Thursday), prepared to sing as if nothing happened. Stephane Lissner, the company’s adept French administrator, told La Reppublica that he fired the tenor for showing ‘lack of respect’ to the public and the theatre. It may come down to high noon at the stage door, with lawyers hovering like the flock of descending vultures in Zeffirelli’s spectacular finale.
The Decca record company, which was scheduled to film the Zeffirelli production for release on DVD, is threatening to sue Alagna for breach of contract. The tenor, presented with a massive hotel bill that La Scala refuses to pay, has promised a counter-suit against the opera house for failing to protect him from hostile elements in the audience. Opera blogs are relaying every rumoured move like hyperactive sportscasters. One of them has turned the story into a graphic novel, titled Panico alla Scala. No question about it - this is the opera event of the century, and it isn’t over yet.
CD of the week Norman Lebrecht
John Dowland: Lute Music 2 Nigel North ***
Whether Sting’s rasping breath has worn the lining off your eardrum or left you eager to hear more, this compilation is an amiable corrective to the X-factor version of 16th century laments. Dowland, heard plain and simple on his favoured instrument, is a certified stress-buster with a beguiling line in self-pity. Whether he’s telling you about his rotten luck in a Lachrimae Pavan or strumming a dirge called I Saw My Lady Weep, he can’t help but make you feel better about your own day at the office. Semper Dowland Semper Dolens (a Latin pun meaning Johnny D’s such a misery), his signature piece on this album, is played straight-faced by an eminent instrumental professor and yields the kind of calm that is normally obtained only from a $100 aromatherapist. Spin it, and see.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]