When a true operatic “super star” tenor comes to town for the first time it is unquestionably an Event. The hype that surrounds Roberto Alagna: “Pavarotti’s successor… charisma… magnetic good looks” (and so on) is par for the course. At least anybody who has seen his photo knows that he has been physically blessed and those who have not had the good fortune of hearing him in the flesh also know from recordings and filmed performances that he possesses an exceptionally beautiful voice and a compelling emotional brand of musicality. The special extra qualities that Alagna displayed in this concert were a generous warmth of spirit and sheer joy in performance. He was out to entertain by sharing his personal musical passions and he did just that.
Perhaps it was inevitable that an eclectic blend of such diverse favourites would leave many unsatisfied. Those who came expecting something similar to Jonas Kaufmann’s 2014 Hamer Hall debut concert may well have been disappointed by the dearth of the promised “great arias” and the presence of microphones and razzamatazz lighting. It is a little ironic that the program contained an interview with Alagna where he claims that opera singers are his favourite singers because “opera is the only discipline that has remained in the same condition as it was two centuries ago, singing without the use of any technology”. The kaleidoscopic lighting techniques ranged from spotlights and an initially fascinating dripping effect from the stalactites suspended over the stage, nicely echoing the auditorium orange stalactites, to searchlights and vivid climactic outbursts that generally reflected the musical content.
The printed program gave a rough idea of what was going to be performed but it is doubtful that most audience members knew exactly what was being performed at any one time. After a sprightly Overture to The Barber of Seville, Alagna bounced on to discover a mysterious bottle, setting up a wonderfully entertaining scene from Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, an item that was not included in the program’s list of possibilities. Not that this reviewer was complaining. Alagna was totally charming as the enthusiastic but naive Nemorino and Siobhan Stagg was equally so as the wiser but equally charming Adina. Both were in terrific voice and immediately established a palpable rapport with the audience as well as each other.
Judging from the applause, many felt that Stagg’s rendition of O mio babbino caro was the operatic highlight of the evening. Intensely emotional and sung with full glorious tone, it was as satisfying a performance as we are likely to hear under those circumstances. Her singing of Non ti scordar di me (Do not forget me), a song associated more with tenors such as Gigli and Alagna’s hero, Pavarotti, than sopranos, was warm and relaxed. Soulful without being in the least saccharine or affected her interpretation was as well suited to the crossover style as Alagna’s.
Their combined efforts on items such as the most famous of Neapolitan songs Santa Lucia, O sole mio and Funiculì finiculà, complete with a verse or two in English, were full of verve and had the audience humming and clapping along. Even when the funicular became temporarily rhythmically derailed during the final encore, the celebratory mood was unbroken. The ever attentive and sympathetic conductor Stefano Miceli ensured that everything was soon back on track and whipping up plenty of excitement.
In addition to spirited playing from the The Australian Sinfonietta Melbourne, Gianni Turcio (a name more easily found on Siobhan Stagg’s Facebook page than on the program) accompanied the singers in songs that provided some of the more intimate moments of the evening. Alagna proved that he is equally capable of creating moments of haunting tenderness as full-throated expansive passion.
Alagna is an exuberantly physical performer, demanding the kind of response from his partner that would challenge even the likes of Ginger Rogers. It was a matter of dancing backwards in high heels with the addition of treacherously long gowns, spontaneous choreography and a need for superlative singing: a tall order that was fulfilled with graceful skill and gorgeous voice by the girl from Mildura.
This was a concert designed to please more than Alagna enthusiasts, lovers of Neapolitan song and the large contingent of Italians in the audience, many of whom were so enthralled that they were humming along to even some of the less well known songs. It was an Event for all who appreciate singers of the highest calibre who so obviously enjoy sharing what they love. Despite the fact that we have yet to hear an unfiltered Alagna, there was much to reward even the most exacting opera purist.
Heather Leviston reviewed Alagna’s only Melbourne concert at Hamer Hall on July 27.