Roberto Alagna’s career sounds like a novel. He was born of Sicilian parents who had settled in the Paris suburbs. In the family everyone sang, and he was not the one (they told him) who had the most beautiful voice: he was sometimes told to be quiet when his uncle sang with his mellow sunny tones. But he had a calling. He sharpened his vocal technique by listening to recordings of the great tenors of the past and by following the advice of an old master, Rafael Ruiz. For years he went out in the evening to keep the old songs alive in the cabarets, accompanying himself on the guitar. But his little secret was the opera, and his idol was Pavarotti. And when the tenorissimo came to Paris to sign autographs in a department store, the young Alagna slipped into the crowd, succeeded in approaching him to say a few words to him. The right words, no doubt, because there he was, invited to an audition by the maestro. He went there, he earned his ticket for the finale of the Pavarotti Competition in Philadelphia. Which he won. This was 1988, and he was twenty-four years old.
Alagna’s voice is luminous, radiant. It is the voice of the Italian lyrical tenor people dream about. Glyndebourne wanted him as Alfredo in La Traviata. Then it was Monte Carlo, and very quickly La Scala with Riccardo Muti, in the role of an Alfredo with a rare fervour. The Duke of Mantoue in Rigoletto followed, with Muti again, and Rodolfo in La Bohème. In a few years the greatest international stages, from New York to Vienna and London, opened their doors to him; the greatest orchestra conductors were honoured to direct him; he was acclaimed everywhere.
A new thunderclap: taking the role in 1994 of Roméo in Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet. The boy wonder of lyrical song put forward singing of a sensitivity and a diction never heard before. People looked for his precursors: Vanzo? Thill? No: he alone brought to French singing so much nobility and such poetry. He entered rightfully into the history of the opera and, in 1995, received the highest British theatrical distinction, the Laurence Olivier Prize, for this performance. Celebrated in the Italian repertoire, he became unique and indispensable in the French repertoire. His performances of Don Carlos in French in London and then in Paris in 1996, of Des Grieux, Werther, Faust, Don José and even Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor stood out and established him in the top ranks.
In the 2000s, his voice has broadened and darkened. He has added to his repertoire the key roles of Italian opera – Manrico, Canio, Radamès, extending all the way to extracts from Otello. He has continued his exploration of French roles with enthusiasm, and given a place of honour again to forgotten operas: Fiesque by Lalo in 2006, Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame by Massenet in 2007, and Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac in 2005, on which he conferred a flamboyance that was almost youthful. This curiosity has attracted contemporary composers: Vladimir Cosma wrote expressly for him the role of Marius in Marius et Fanny which debuted in Marseille in 2007, with his wife Angela Georghiu, and his brother David wrote for him Le Dernier Jour d’un Condamné, performed for the first time in July the same year. There are not many lyrical performers who have paved the way for so many new things!
Roberto Alagna’s discography reflects the extent of his musical curiosity. Under exclusive contract with EMI as from 1993, he cut the pillars of the French (Manon, Werther, Don Carlos, Carmen) and Italian repertoires (La Bohème, La Rondine, Tosca, Il Trovatore, Verdi’s Requiem). For other labels, he has recorded L’Elixir d’Amour, Rigoletto and La Traviata. He has put together unexpected recitals, dedicated to Berlioz or to the rare items of the French repertoire. In 2004, he signed up exclusively with Deutsche Grammophon. His first album at DG, Roberto Alagna chante Luis Mariano, by becoming a double platinum disk, offered him fame beyond the frontiers of the lyrical art.
The DVD holds a major place in this discography. Concerned with theatrical verisimilitude, Roberto Alagna gives expression to his complete dramatic range in very diverse roles: a moving Nemorino (L’Elisir d’amore, Decca), an almost fragile Radamès (Aida, Decca), an enthusiastic Cyrano (DG). He takes an interest as well in the techniques of production, as for I Pagliacci (DG). The producer Benoît Jacquot asked him to play Mario in the film version of Tosca (2001), which takes full advantage of the singer-actors.
Adopted by a broad public, Roberto Alagna appears on television sets where he plays opposite variety singers, participates in charity concerts (Michael Jackson & Friends) or in exceptional events – in 2002 and 2003, he sang for the Pope in Rome. By his own reckoning, the high point remains his performance, on 14 July 2005, of La Marseillaise on the Champs-Elysées, opposite the official grandstand.
Although his recordings and his performances have earned him the highest musical and official awards (he was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 2008), Roberto Alagna is not resting on his laurels. His agenda for the next few years provides for taking on major roles – Andrea Chénier, Cavalleria Rusticana, Le Cid – a disc of Sicilian songs and a tour in autumn 2008. The odds are high that he will add to it with the unpredictable ideas and audacious coups that, since his debut, have made his artistic journey an incomparable adventure.