Roberto Alagna: French Arias
Arias by Bazin (Maître Pathelin), Massenet (Le Cid), Cherubini (Les AbencÈrages), Gounod (Mireille), GrÈtry (L'Amant jaloux), HalÈvy (La Juive), Thomas (Mignon),  Meyerbeer (L’Africaine), Berlioz (La Damnation de Faust), Gluck (IphigÈnie en Tauride), Bizet (Les PÍcheurs de perles), Lalo (Le Roi d'Ys), Mehul (Joseph), Saint-Saëns (Samson et Dalila), and Bruneau (L’Attaque de moulin).
Roberto Alagna, tenor. London Voices, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Bertrand de Billy, conductor.
EMI 57012  (F) (DDD) TT: 72:23

Although Roberto Alagna is of Sicilian background, he was born and raised in France (the liner notes refer to him as "Parisian"). Complete EMI recordings of such operas as RomÈo et Juliette, Werther, and Manon demonstrate that, indeed, Roberto Alagna is a worthy exponent of French repertoire.

In this new EMI recital, Roberto Alagna sings both familiar and more obscure selections from various French operas. Performance of this repertoire automatically invites comparison with some of the great French tenors of the past. But the stakes are raised even a bit higher by J.B. Steane, who concludes his liner notes by stating:

"the French school itself continued to produce tenors whose distinction lay primarily in their lyric charm, elegant style and clear, clean-cut tone. Those whom we hear on early records, such as Edmond ClÈment, Louis Cazette, and, later, Georges Thill, with Alain Vanzo in more nearly modern times, represent many of its best features. This is the tradition which Roberto Alagna now inherits."

So, how does Roberto Alagna rate in comparison to such august company? In certain ways, quite well indeed. His singing offers many positive qualities, including an appealingly warm timbre, excellent breath control, and unfailing dramatic commitment. These strengths produce superb renditions of such arias as "Ô souverain, ô juge, ô pËre" from Massenet's Le Cid and "Rachel, quand du Seigneur" from HalÈvy's La Juive. In general the more declamatory works fare quite well in this recital. In fact I cannot think of any tenors of the past few decades who have sung these arias (and many others included on the disc) better.

On the other hand, comparisons to the tenors cited by Mr. Steane do not always work in Roberto Alagna's favor. While Mr. Alagna's French diction is certainly far more idiomatic than what we are generally used to hearing today, it does not have the remarkably pointed clarity of such artists as ClÈment, Cazette, Thill, and Vanzo. Additionally, Alagna lacks the deftness of touch that make the recordings of ClÈment, Cazette, Thill, and Vanzo (and others like David DevriËs and Miguel Villabella) so beguiling.

Compare, for example, Roberto Alagna's rendition of Nadir's Romance from Bizet's Les PÍcheurs de perles with that of the Corsican tenor Alain Vanzo (part of a complete 1959 radio broadcast, issued on Gala GL 100.504). Both tenors portray Nadir's anguish as depicted in the fiery introductory recitative, but Vanzo's pointed diction and more varied use of colors are far more compelling. In the Romance itself, Alagna works quite hard to scale down his voice to accommodate Bizet's dream-like vocal line. He is only intermittently successful, with occasional sagging of pitch. He does take the high "C" at the aria's conclusion, while Vanzo does not. On the other hand, Vanzo's performance flows with breathtaking security and tonal beauty. His hushed, rapt delivery seems to make time stand still. This is French lyric tenor singing at its finest.

Still, I think that most people will find much to enjoy in the new EMI disc. The repertoire is certainly adventurous, and the performances affirm Roberto Alagna's importance as a contemporary advocate of French opera. I am also very favorably impressed by the detailed and sensitive accompaniment provided by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, under the direction of Bertrand de Billy.

The sound is excellent. In addition to J.B. Steane's essay, the booklet provides brief information about each opera, as well as French texts and English translations.

This disc is valuable for providing an interesting cross-section of French repertoire, generally well-performed by all concerned. And, if this disc serves as the impetus for an exploration of some of the great French tenors of the past, it will have provided an additional and quite important service.

K.M. (May 2003)