ENCOUNTER – After several albums dedicated to French and Italian song, French tenor Roberto Alagna returns to opera, always opera, an obsession but also a garden where he regains his strength, where he builds himself up.
“I didn’t do all that for thirty years just to end up back on a construction site!” Roberot Alagna bursts out laughing as he arrives at our meeting point in front of the Philharmonie de Paris, which is still under construction. As a teenager, the popular French tenor would join his father, a Sicilian immigrant, on the building sites of the Île-de-France. “I even worked there a bit to make some money,” he proudly adds. “In my life, I’ve always worked.”
Roberto Alagna has “never left” Clichy-sous-Bois, where he grew up, still owns a house, and where his family still lives. “I’m almost the only person in the world to be born at Clichy-sous-Bois,” he jokes. “There was no clinic or hospital in the town. I came into the world in a garage.” The Alagnas didn’t have much money, but there was a love of singing that shaped one of the most sought-after tenors of the opera world – his diary is full, five years in advance. Is Clichy Roberto’s secret garden? “Singing, always singing: it’s the only time I feel myself alive, it’s my obsession…”
My life is an opera: such is the title of Roberto Alagna’s new album (Universal-Deutsche-Grammophon). Ambition, glory, loves (in the plural), jealousy and despair are the ingredients of the libretto that tells the life-story of “Robertino”. In the 1980s, after a failed entry into the French pop world – “I got there too late, the era was all about disco, which I didn’t like” – he understood that he was a tenor. Just as his career was taking off, his first wife passed away, leaving him to face his very recent fatherhood on his own. “I was tempted to follow her,” Roberto admits in a slightly weaker voice. Like Orpheus losing his Eurydice, that founding myth of musicians and poets. It’s by playing his lyre that Orpheus manages to soften the hearts of the gods and convince them to let him seek Eurydice in the underworld. “A part of me stayed with her.”
Opera, his therapy
The other part made a formidable professional ascent, embodying the great heroes of operatic literature, Werther, Don José, Roméo, Hoffmann. “All those characters shaped me. They were my therapy, my tools for erasing my complexes.” After Mexico, a record consecrated to Luis Mariano, then another of Sicilian songs, this new recording marks his return to opera, which he never really left, at least not on stage.
For this record, he meets up again with his great friend, the arranger Yvan Cassar, who pulled together a tailor-made orchestra in London. “We chose London to fit with Roberto’s travel schedule but also for its mythical studios like Abbey Road,” Cassar explains. “Roberto’s repertoire choices were audacious.” Indeed: this is no “best of”, typical flashy arias for tenors in the second halves of their careers, but a programme where Massenet’s Hérodiade meets Reyer’s Sigur. My Life is an Opera sometimes has a sombre cast, as in the aria from Gounod’s La Reine de Sabba which invokes “the weakness of the human race”. “I’m a bit sombre myself,” the artist admits, “a bit Russian.
Like most Sicilians who know that Syracuse was once more powerful than Rome, I feel a certain inner nostalgia.” In Gounod’s aria, his character asks for the Gods’ help… And Roberto does the same with the muses. “Inspire me! Let me accomplish my mission, may this record be successful, may I fulfil my duty…” And his “Amen” is a great burst of laughter.
Is it as a reply to certain severe critics that the tenor punctuates his album with Pagliacci, the betrayed clown of Leoncavallo’s opera? Even when ill, Roberto always goes on stage, sometimes missing an effect or a high note, attracting the wrath of some critics. “No-one is ever in full possession of their abilities when going on stage,” he affirms. “I’m in full form two days a year – the two evenings I don’t sing!” To those critics, his reply is: “The party’s over. Roberto’s not arrogant any more. This tenor is going through a rebirth.” A mid-life crisis? “No,” he shoots back, “I went through that shock when I was 40, when I lost my energy [due to a blood disorder].”
This newfound youth came with a little girl, his second, born a few months ago: Malêna, whose name comes from a tango and who apparently already shows aptitude for music. Not surprisingly, given that her mother is also an opera singer: Aleksandra Kursak, whom Roberto met in 2012, also sings on the album. He likes her “particular beauty, her Betty Boop side that’s both sensual and serious.” There she is, then, the new Eurydice of our jeans-clad tenor. “It’s true, when I started out, I came to rehearsals in jeans while the other singers wore their costumes,” Roberto recalls, who’s just as at ease in the construction worker’s reflective vest and hard hat.
1963: Born on 7 June in Clichy-sous-Bois. 1985: Embrasse-moi released on 7-inch by Barclay.
1988: Wins the Pavarotti competition and a first engagement in England for La Traviata.
1996: Marries soprano Angela Gheorghiu on the stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera at the intermission of La Bohème, the opera in which they met in 1992 in London. On his own or with Angela, Roberto sings on all the great stages of the world. They separate, reconcile, then finally divorce in 2013.
2005: Sells 500,000 copies of his record dedicated to Luis Mariano, which is followed by Sicilien and Little Italy.
2012: Meets Aleksandra Kurzak; their daughter is born in January 2014.
2014: 17th November, release of My Life is an Opera (Universal)
A FILM: La traversée de Paris for its confrontation between proletariats and bourgeois, for the extraordinary Gabin and Bourvil, and for its brilliant lines like “Those bastard poor!” [salauds de pauvres ! in French]
CD: I go online, I download… But I regret YouTube’s existence a little because I really liked going into a shop and coming out with dozens of records. Today I’d buy… my Berlioz album (DG, 2006), because no-one’s made that rec
ord, before or since. I wanted it to be my first opera recording, but I was told it wouldn’t sell. I did it ten years later.
A BOOK: Right now I’m reading Les Rois Maudits [by Maurice Druon] and telling myself that there’s absolutely everything in that saga: Game of Thrones didn’t invent a thing!