VERDI: Tenor arias from Luisa Miller, I lombardi, Aïda, Ernani, Un ballo in maschera, Otello, La forza del destino, Macbeth, Jérusalem, and Il trovatore.
Roberto Alagna, tenor; Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Clau
dio Abbado, cond.



Like Alagna's CD debut in mixed tenor repertoire, this one reminds me (both a little more and a little less) of Mario Lanza, which is not intended to be a compliment but a caution. What discs don't tell us is the size of Alagna's voice, any more than they told us the size of Lanza's—which I heard, in a 1951 Cincinnati concert, and it was unlarge. Not even spinto-weight, much less robusto or eroico.  Basically, Lanza was a self-trained lyric tenor who never learned to read music, but listened instead to Caruso recordings. One needn't have to read music, although God knows it helps: Ezio Pinza couldn't, and it never held him back. Rumor hath it that Pavarotti can't either (although that may just be jealous colleagues talking). Before he was 35 Lanza had sung away most of his natural gift, a loss complicated by obesity, alcholism, and terminal drug use.

Alagna's background, the subject of so much high-voice hype, seems similarly undertrained (his foregound you can judge for yourself on the jacket-photo of his unclad upper torso). His top voice is the principal problem, evidenced by hectoring high Cs in "Di quella pira" from Il trovatore, which he shouldn't even be trying to sing until he's 40, if then. This is robusto country, along with Radames, Ernani, Forza's Don Alvaro—Richard Tucker territory, you could say. Alagna belongs in Ballo, Traviata, Rigoletto—of which there's only the first-named on this CD.

Dismayingly to see, he has dared to challenge Otello—"Dio mio potevi scagliar" from the third act, and the final act's "Niun mi tema." Even more dismayingly, they reveal him at his current best! He's never likely to sing the role in an opera house, or even on a video, but here he is powerfully moving, no little thanks to Claudio Abbado's shepherding (or maybe a whole lot of thanks). Otherwise, Alagna's already unsteady (unready?) in "Quando le sere al placido from Luisa Miller, which kicks off the collection. Technically his pass in a trill at Manrico's "Ah, si, ben mio" is disturbingly underdisciplined, ecc., ecc.

The missus, Angela Gheorghiu, adds a few notes as Leonora in the other Trovatore excerpt, but her back-cover billing is second to Alagna's "personal manager," Lévon Savan (in case you want to write him for an autograph, or something). Nice of her to want to help out hubby. Other comprimari and the chorus, though, get no credit (unless the Berliner Philharmoniker sing when they're not playing). Abbado is a kindly shepherd elsewhere, too, and the orchestra has a sheen no one, not even Furtwängler or that compulsive cosmetician, Karajan, evoked from it. There's only so much that recording secrets can achieve; the bottom line is inherent in the playing, vintage 1990s.  But getting back to the star attraction, at least on the front cover, he really needs to do whatever more is necessary lest he become Roberto Alanza, or Mario Alagna.

R.D. (Sept. 1999)