It is curious how two critics, when listening to the
same voice or record, can come away with two very different
views. When this disc was first issued in 2003 Alan Blyth
made the following two statements in the Gramophone, ‘I
can think of no other tenor of the past, let alone present,
who would dare quite as much as Alagna had done here’ and ‘From
the more distant past, Georges Thill, whom Alagna singing
in French often calls to mind’.
I would probably agree
with the first statement, but disagree with Alan Blyth
when it came to considering whether Alagna should have
dared so much. Regarding the second statement, it has always
puzzled me how critics compared Alagna to the great French
tenors of the past: John Steane does so in the booklet
for Alagna’s 2001 recital of French opera arias. Granted
Alagna singing in French is always a joy to listen to,
but his technique owes far more to his Italian heritage
than French; the open-throated-ness of his singing would
seem to have little in common with such tenors as Georges
Thill. But, since the war, we have become used to tenors
singing the French repertoire with a variety of foreign
techniques and in comparison to these, Alagna with his
ideal French pronunciation seems perfect despite his Italianate
The other puzzling thing
about this disc is the selection of items; there are some
alarmingly short excerpts on the disc. The opening recit.
from Act 1 of Les Troyens barely gives Alagna time
to register before it is abruptly over. If would surely
have been fairer to the singer and to Berlioz to have either
omitted the excerpt or given us the ensuing ensemble. Alagna
seems uncomfortable in the fast-paced heroics required
of his voice in this piece. He is closer to the ideal in
Iopas’s aria, though his tone is meatier and richer than
I am used to, having been brought up on a sequence of English
lyric tenors singing this repertoire. He is at his best
in Énée’s Act 5 aria, Inutiles regrets partly because
the longer excerpt gives him more time to register. Alagna’s
voice is not that of an ideal Énée, his open timbre means
that he lacks the narrow focus and sense of line that is
desirable in this music.
The most curious aspect
of the selection from Les Troyens is that the love
duet is omitted. Given that Angela Georghiu sings on other
tracks on the disc, it is a great shame that this was not
recorded as it would make far greater sense of the excerpts
from Énée’s part.
The following three tracks
show Alagna at his versatile best, a beautifully sung excerpt
from L’Enfance du Christ, the brilliant Mab,
la messagère from Roméo et Juliette and Merci,
doux crépuscule from La Damnation de Faust.
Berlioz preceded La
Damnation by his Huit scènes de Faust and
Alagna gives us Mephistophélès’s Serenade from
this latter; Mephistopheles being taken by a tenor in
the earlier work. The voice seems to be accompanied by
just a guitar in a fascinating glimpse into Berlioz’s
earlier version of the legend. Alagna, though, seems
to be rather effortful in this music; perhaps a lighter
more lyric voice is required.
He is more at home in
the further excerpts from La Damnation de Faust where
he has a sure feel for the style. He is partnered by Angela
Georghiu’s touchingly fragile Marguérite.
Je vais l’aimer from Béatrice et Benedict would again have benefited from
a lighter-voiced singer but Alagna is entirely convincing
and again has a sure feel for the style.
Even more fascinating
is the inclusion of two excerpts from Lélio, the
monodrama which Berlioz wrote as a sequel to the Symphonie
Fantastique. Alagna is on good form here and both excerpts
are sung exquisitely, making me wish that there had been
more from this neglected work.
As with Énée, Alagna
is not my ideal choice for the role of Benvenuto Cellini.
He dropped out of the more recent concert performances
and recording sessions under John Nelson so we will probably
not now hear him in the complete role. But here he is stylish
and musical, even if he does not bring to the role the
sparkle and lightness of touch that would be ideal.
I found this recital
a little too bitty for comfort. The sequences of medium
and short length excerpts (20 tracks in under 70 minutes)
do not really coalesce into a satisfying whole; neither
do they really succeed as a showpiece for Alagna. Both
Berlioz and Alagna would have been better served if the
producers had selected fewer, longer excerpts and concentrated
on roles that fitted Alagna’s voice best.
Alagna receives decent
support from Bertrand de Billy and the Orchestra of the
Royal Opera House. De Billy does not strike me as being
a passionate Berlioz lover but he accompanies Alagna well
enough. Neither Angela Georghiu’s soprano nor Gérard Depardieu’s
speaker get enough recording time, I would have liked to
have heard more of them.
But when all is said
and done, this record does give us the chance to hear Berlioz
performed by a native French speaker and sung by a singer
of great musicality.
Reviews of recent DG releases of Roberto Alagna
4776273 - Bel canto: Göran
4776276 - Nessun dorma:
4776278 - Sacred songs: Evan Dickerson
4776279 - Verdi arias: Robert J Farr