The tenor voice has been a constant in French opera
since the 17th century but the type of voice
has metamorphosed. Lully had voices available to him which
we would recognise as tenors but the most popular voice
type at the time was the haut-contre, a species of lyric
tenor whose upper register is extended using falsetto.
During the 18th century the haut-contre was
gradually replaced by a more modern sounding tenor, though
late 18th/early 19th century opera
tended to emphasise, rather than disguise the changes of
register. It was only with Adolphe Nourrit and Gilbert-Louis
Duprez in the 19th century that the modern operatic
tenor was created, with the emphasis on the high C sung
in full chest voice.
Roberto Alagna traverses much of this repertoire on
this fascinating recital, originally recorded in 1999/2000.
On this disc Alagna’s voice is recognisably developing
into something stronger, more capable of heavy roles, but
he still has a lovely lyric instrument. This means that,
though he sings arias written for a variety of voice types,
he can generally produce a convincing vocal style.
In the Romance from Francois Bazin’s Maitre Pathelin,
Alagna displays an impressive continuity of vocal tone
to the very top of his voice, though the aria is marred
by a rather abrupt end. The composer wrote mainly for the
Opera Comique and enjoyed some success with Maitre Pathelin (in
1856), but achieved longer lasting fame with Le Voyage
en Chine in 1865.
Alagna displays an impressive sense of line in ‘O souverain,
o juge, o pere’ from Massenet’s Le Cid. He also
refrains from over milking Massenet’s big tune, showing
a musicality which is one of the welcome facets of this
The aria from Cherubini’s Les Abencerages (which
dates from 1813) is attractively tuneful and presages future
developments in French opera. At times the aria sounds
surprisingly in advance of its time. One of the fascinating
things the recital points up is the continuity of form
and idea in these operas. The Serenade form Gretry’s L’Amant
jaloux contains a number of pre-echoes of Bizet’s essays
in a similar vein. Though the aria would ideally need a
lighter, more lyric voice, Alagna gives a convincing performance
nonetheless. The Cavatine from Gounod’s Mireille shows
the composer treading familiar ground as it contains numerous
reminders of ‘O Demeure, Pure et Simple’ from Faust.
With the Air from Halevy’s La Juive we come to
a group of better-known arias. The items by Thomas, Meyerbeer
and Halevy have kept a life in recital even if their operas
are not so often performed. And the excerpt from La
Damnation de Faust needs no introduction. In all these
pieces Alagna displays fine musicality and a good sense
of line. He is adept at creating the right atmosphere for
each aria. Whilst his versions may not be completely ideal,
taken as a group they are an impressive achievement.
By this point in the recital, I began to notice a certain
commonality in the pieces. Granted they have all been selected
for a purpose and are linked by Alagna’s personality, but
beyond that the pieces seem to display a similar feel for
the melodic line and a care for the voice over the orchestra,
a preference for lyricism over sheer power. That these
concerns continued from early to late 19th century
in French opera is an indication, perhaps, of how the later
composers on this record were determined not to be affected
Something from an opera by Gluck is a prime candidate
for inclusion in the recital, because Gluck’s French operas
became so influential. Unfortunately Alagna’s style lets
him down in ‘Unis des la plus tendre enfance’ from Iphigenie
The Romance from Les Pecheurs de perles requires
a certain type of lyric tenor voice. Whilst Alagna successfully
negotiated the demands of the Romance from Bazin’s opera,
in Bizet’s Romance he resorts to a sort of crooning which
is atmospheric and effective whilst not being what is really
called for. With the arias from Lalo’s Le Roi d’Ys and
Mehul’s Joseph we are on lesser known ground, but
Alagna returns to form with stylistically appropriate performances.
‘ Vois ma misere’ is probably the heaviest of the roles
that are sampled on the disc. Alagna’s performance is impressive,
indicating the way his voice was going to develop, but
he lacks the raw power and emotion which others have brought
to the role.
The final item on the disc is something of a pleasant
surprise, an aria from Bruneau’s opera L’Attaque du
moulin, definitely repertoire that you do not come
across every day. Bruneau was a Massenet pupil and an admirer
of Zola; Bruneau based eight of his thirteen operas on
Zola’s stories. It is a big romantic sing, and Alagna gives
the aria its full weight making you curious about the rest
of Bruneau’s work.
Bertrand de Billy and the orchestra of the Royal Opera
House give fine support. Lucy Foster and Elizabeth Fyfe
contribute some fine cor anglais playing in ‘Rachel, quand
This is an interestingly put together recital which
manages to illuminate much of the tenor repertoire in 19th century
French opera (and early) whilst mixing the known and the
unknown. Of course, it only works properly because Alagna
brings to each aria his familiar intelligence and musicality.
Don’t throw out your Georges Thill recitals, but definitely
buy this one as well.
(Editor - this is one of a number of Alagna recitals
recently released on DG - see Robert Hugill's review of
the Berlioz rectial for links to reviews of the other releases).