Alagna Takes Center Stage With Belly Flops, Sicilian Song

'L'Elisir d'Amore'
Tenor Roberto Alagna as the love-bitten farmhand Nemorino who's in love with Adina, soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, in the "L'Elisir d'Amore." Alagna has sold hundreds of thousands of copies of crossover albums with Sicilian and Latin American songs. Photographer: Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera House via Bloomberg

Even a dog can’t run away with the show when Roberto Alagna is on stage. As the sweetly silly farmhand in “L’Elisir d’Amore,” now at London’s Royal Opera House, the tenor hogs the limelight with his seductive voice and athletic belly flops.

Before the dress rehearsal is over, the fit singer tosses his shirt at a gaggle of happy peasant girls -- just one of the amusing moments in a production which features a running dog, a moped and a truck (and also soprano Aleksandra Kurzak).

Backstage moments later, Alagna, 49, appears in a V-neck sweater and jeans. We sit down in an antechamber next to the director’s box.

In person, the tenor is nothing like the back-slapping Nemorino. He’s friendly yet guarded -- wary of journalists, he later explains, because he doesn’t recognize their descriptions of him. As the interview progresses, Alagna loosens up. He breaks into song on camera, and gives me a farewell hug.

“My story is a fairy tale,” says Alagna. “I’m very lucky, because I will turn 50 next June, and I’m here playing, singing with young people: This cast are 10 or more years younger than me.”

“I’ve had success everywhere in the world,” he says in a carpeted antechamber to the director’s box. “I’ve had, also, difficulties sometimes.”

Booed by Nuts

Career-wise, Alagna is in a good place. His crossover albums of Sicilian and Latin American songs have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He has long overcome a 2006 episode at Milan’s La Scala where he dramatically walked off the stage after being booed by a few nuts in Verdi’s “Aida.”

Next month, he sings “Aida” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In the first half of next year, he’s down to perform three operas in Vienna: Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera,” Massenet’s “Werther,” and “Carmen.”

The man long identified as half of opera’s power couple -- his wife is soprano Angela Gheorghiu -- brushes aside any questions about their current projects together. The pair met performing “La Boheme” at the Royal Opera House in 1992, and married on stage at the Metropolitan Opera four years later. They separated in 2009 because of the strains of parallel careers, and got back together last year; they’re still married.

“You can’t control my schedule: You will see, it’s all the time very, very full. It’s impossible to stay home,” explains the tenor. “Angela, she’s different: She likes to stay home, to have holidays, to enjoy life.”

Bricklayer’s Son

For a top tenor, Alagna had unusual beginnings. Son of a Sicilian bricklayer, he was born in an opera-loving household in the Paris suburbs. He made his singing debut in a pizzeria, and performed in four or five cabarets a night from the age of 15, including one that’s now a couscous place.

Cabaret brought him in contact with topless dancers, magicians and comedians, and taught him how to get audience attention. By day, he studied opera.

Fate came knocking in 1987 when a friend took the 24-year-old Alagna to a Paris record signing by Luciano Pavarotti. He was invited by Pavarotti to enter an international singing competition, which he won in 1988. Debuting in “La Traviata” at the Glyndebourne Festival that year, he was soon on every world stage.

He married, had a baby girl, bought his first apartment, and got a nice car. “I felt at that moment like I was in the sky, flying,” he recalls. Then his first wife died suddenly of a brain tumor, leaving the 31-year-old with an orphaned toddler.

Working Harder

“When you are too happy, after that, you have a bad surprise,” says the wisened Alagna. “It’s better to stay in the middle.”

Reviewers have always been lukewarm, says the tenor, wistfully. “I never received wonderful critiques in my life, never: I don’t know why,” he laments. “It was difficult for them to make a classification of my voice, of my style.” The challenge has made him work ever harder.

(In fact, he’s always been adored by many critics. His Nemorino won him plaudits. Bloomberg’s Warwick Thompson said Alagna was “delightful” in the part and had “a real flair for comedy.” The Observer termed it a “stunning performance: boyish, lyrical, acrobatic and touching.”)

Alagna can’t predict whether he’ll sing into his seventies like Placido Domingo. What he is sure of is that he can’t survive without singing, no more than Maria Callas could.

“When you are a real singer, it’s not something built, it’s something you have inside of you,” he says. Losing the voice is “like when your children die before you: It’s not natural.”

“For me, it’s the same,” he says. “I hope to die before my voice.”

“Elisir d’Amore” is at the Royal Opera House through Dec. 7. Information:

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food, Jorg von Uthmann on Paris art and James S. Russell on architecture.

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