BERLIOZ: Excerpts from Les Troyens, L'Enfance du Christ, Roméo et Juliette, La Damnation de Faust, Bèatrice et Bénédict, Lélio, Benvenuto Cellini. La Marsellaise.
Roberto Alagna, tenor; Gérard Depardieu, speaker; Angela Gheorghiu, soprano; Choruses; Royal Opera House Orch/Bertrand de Billy, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 57433 (F) (DDD) TT: 69:32

If not quite a musicianly trove, tenor Roberto Alagna has nevertheless been dauntless and painstaking. Consider this collection of arias, strophes, a chanson (and even Berlioz’s original setting of “La Marseillaise”) from three operas, a Symphonie fantastique pendant entitled Lélio, a “symphonie dramatique,” a “légende dramatique,” a “trilogie sacrée,” and two of the eight scenes from the composer's Op. 1, inspired by Goethe's Faust. A veritable feast, if not from (yet) a 3- star chef. Give him one apiece, though, for diction and wood-shedding.

Repertory ranges from Iopas' song "O golden Ceres" in Act IV of Les Troyens and the narrator's "When the [Holy Family] had come to pleasant place in Egypt" from L'Enfance du Christ, to Mercutio's "Queen Mab" scherzetto from Roméo et Juliette – all for light lyric tenor. However, the Verdian repertoire Alagna is either singing live or recording has replaced vocal platinum with a good deal of brass. In the excerpts from Les Troyens he also sings Aeneas, the hero, which only a few tenors have had the fach or stamina to sustain on the stage. In La Damnation de Faust from 1846, which followed the Eight Scenes by nearly 20 years, the title role calls for a lyric tenor with robusto in reserve. The tessitura and high-notes are not Alagna's to summon effortlessly (or even pleasantly on several occasions), although the 1828 setting of Mephisto's "Serenade," accompanied only by guitar, is a charming interpolation—despite a spoken introduction provided by Gérard Depardieu. The actor also reads Lélio's text in the first of two excerpts from that "lyric monodrama," while Alagna sings Horatio’s music; but the second excerpt finds Alagna as Lélio, now singing (but not, as the score directs, "in a subdued voice"). The two arias here from Berlioz's 1838 opera Benvenuto Cellini call for a lyric-dramatic voice, yet Alagna recapitulates his basically effortful Faust and Aeneas, although when he lightens up he is successful here more than anywhere else. Which leaves Benedick's aria from Bèatrice et Bénédict both under- characterized and oversung, and a startlingly shrill contribution by Mrs. Alagna (ou Angela Gheorghiu) as Marguerite in the garden love-duet of Damnation.

To end on a gladsome note, we hear Berlioz's stirring version of La Marseillais with the tenor soloist he asked for. The only previous version I’ve known of this grandiose setting (adult and children's choruses with large orchestra) featured a lyric soprano, Andrea Guiot, who sounded tremulously overparted. I mustn't close, however, without special praise for Bertrand de Billy who conducts the Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden, and at least three French choruses. He deserves to emerge on discs from the shadow of Alagna. One last plus: The program includes complete texts in French and English, as well as Hugh Macdonald's excellent essay on Berlioz as a composer for the voice, and prefatory texts that provide a context for each excerpt.

R.D. (July 2003)