Boo-hoo: Alagna could have had it worse at La Scala

MUSIC

Music Column

December 19, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The most talked-about tenor in the world at the moment is Roberto Alagna, who famously - infamously? - stormed off the stage of Milan's La Scala, the most prestigious Italian opera house, after his entrance aria in Verdi's Aida was coarsely booed last week.

The second most talked-about tenor is Antonello Palombi, who was pushed onstage, still in his street clothes, to pick up where Alagna left off. That didn't stop the catcalls right away - "Shame" (possibly aimed at the booers) and "buffoon" (presumably targeting Alagna) could be heard.

This whole riveting episode, captured on grainy video and much discussed in the world press and global blogosphere, is enough to prove definitively the old adage that music is an insane asylum, and opera is the wing for the incurables. Even folks usually disinterested in things operatic must be eating this crazy incident up. Reality TV has nothing on surreal stuff like this.

It seems that no singer (certainly no singer of stature) has been known to desert a performance in a huff. Illness, yes. Death, unfortunately, in a few cases. But just because of some boos?

Had Alagna at least finished the act, then quit with some sort of medical justification, he might have gotten away with it. As it is, he is stuck with the image of a petulant, thin-skinned singer who just couldn't cut it. And he's going to have an awfully hard time shaking that image.

He also may have a tough time getting back in La Scala. Management fired him from the rest of the Aida run, and there's a chance he will be barred from the house indefinitely (like temperamental soprano Kathleen Battle was from the Metropolitan Opera years ago).

Meanwhile, Palombi, scheduled to make his Baltimore Opera Company debut in Tosca in May (that's suddenly going to be a much hotter ticket), gets to enjoy something of a heroic reputation for saving the day in black jeans and an untucked shirt to match. The substitute tenor, who changed into costume during intermission, was roundly cheered for his work, and is sure to enjoy a career boost.

That said, the tape of this now historic night at the opera reveals Alagna coping reasonably well with Celeste, Aida - a tough aria for most tenors, partly because it comes so early in the work. I've heard much, much worse. When it ends, one or two shouts of "bravo" can be heard, which seems to be just the trigger needed to set off the loggionisti - the usually knowledgeable and always demanding people who routinely fill La Scala's cheapest seats.

The boos and whistles that erupt do not sound pretty on the tape and no doubt sounded worse in the house. Alagna, who finished the aria in a reclining position, stands up, raises a fist and, after trying unsuccessfully to exit stage left, heads back to stage right, never to be seen again.

If only Alagna, an artist of considerable, if variable, talent, had tried a little humor. Like the tenor who got a bad reception early on in Rigoletto and yelled back at the audience: "Did you whistle at me? Just wait - you haven't heard the baritone yet."

Or the tenor who was jeered mercilessly in Norma and bravely turned to his hecklers: "OK, I know I'm not too good today, but I'm booked for five more performances. If you just shut up, I'll finish this one and leave town tomorrow. If you keep whistling and yelling, I'll sing all six. You decide."

The crowd let him sing and decided he wasn't so bad after all. He made all of his gigs.

(Such stories could be apocryphal, of course, but they're part of the impervious lore of opera.)

For many operagoers, nothing can justify the sheer rudeness of booing and jeering. In this country, we sit silently through all sorts of mediocrity, even blatant incompetence - and not just in opera houses - rather than turn obnoxious. Personally, I think a little audience misbehavior can be a good thing. There's something kind of, well, admirable about opera fans so committed to the art form that they won't suffer bad vocalism gladly. Hey, it's a passionate art form.

Italian opera fans have long cornered the market on that kind of commitment and passion. Some of the world's best singers - Luciano Pavarotti, Renee Fleming and Maria Callas, to name a few - have been booed by them, especially by the notoriously hard-to-please loggionisti at La Scala. Callas, in particular, offers a case study in crowd control. Too bad Alagna didn't take a page from her brave playbook.

There was the La Scala performance of La Traviata in 1955 when heckling and whistling interrupted Callas as she was singing the aria Sempre libera that ends Act 1. The music stopped, Callas gradually regained her composure, finished the aria, then took a solo curtain call, sending the clear message that she had only been wounded, hardly defeated. The night ended in triumph for her.

Same opera, same theater, the next year: During her final bows, radishes were thrown by the loggionisti. She grandly swept them up as if they were lovely flowers. Callas 2, bad guys 0.

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