For an hour or so, we talk about audience behaviour, the subjectivity of critics, the demands of singing and of course Carmen, the opera they are in London to perform, and will do again in New York in January. He has been playing Don José for many years but she is fairly new to the role of the Spanish temptress. It’s the first time they’ve worked together but they clearly enjoy each other’s company and the chemistry between them has already been noted in the early reviews of the current run of Bizet’s opera.
When I met them, they had already done the first performance, the Soaraway Sun gala, where readers of Britain’s favourite tabloid had the opportunity to see world-class opera at minimal cost. I ask them if it was noticeable that this was a different audience from usual.
“It’s good when people see opera for the first time”
“Yes, we were very aware,” says Alagna, “I think people were very happy. They applauded all the time, but not in the wrong places, and I think they were surprised by what they were seeing. I like that. It’s good when people see opera for the first time.” We agree this was the ideal work for doing such a promotion and joke that it might not have worked so well with Wagner, although Garanca and I share a bit of trivia, in that Tannhäuser was the first opera we both saw (she was seven and left in the interval).
They are very complimentary about the Sun audience and Alagna enthuses about how technology (cinema broadcasts, the internet etc) has made opera more popular today than ever before. We go on to talk about other aspects of audience behaviour, in the light of the recent booing that rocked the first nights of Tosca at the Met and Tristan und Isolde at Covent Garden last week. In the case of New York it would definitely seem to have been a reaction from conservative audiences to the replacement of a favourite old production for a new (and slightly radical) one.
Neither Alagna nor Garanca attended Christof Loy’s Tristan but they felt maybe the vocal response to the production team (the loudest and most violent I’ve ever heard in the opera house) was something similar. Garanca describes the Wagner public as being made up of enthusiasts who don’t like much else and tend towards conservatism. As a life-long fan of the composer, I don’t quite recognise that – closer to my own experience, Alagna tells me that he and his assistant once stood at Covent Garden for Die Meistersinger out of love of the music - but the boorishness of (some of) the first nighters last week may bear it out.
“Why do we have to see that in the theatre?”
“Today, there’s so much violence in life – racism, harm against children, everything – why do we have to see that in the theatre?” asks Alagna, “ It doesn’t help, does it? How are you supposed to go on after that?”
Being booed is something Alagna is only too aware of. He famously stormed off the stage at La Scala a couple of years ago when, soon after the beginning of Aida, a claque booed him aggressively. He seems happy to talk about it because he’s convinced it was political (“they boo everything at La Scala when it’s not Italian”) but such behaviour clearly hurts and it makes you wonder how the booers would feel if they were treated in the same way at their work.
Alagna warms to the subject and says that the internet has a part to play: “Today there are forums and blogs and people fight there amongst themselves and it carries over into the opera house. It doesn’t happen in musical theatre, does it?” He has a point. The internet affords anonymity to the bitchier element and it’s a worrying prospect that oafish behaviour could become a norm at the opera. “Why not just withhold applause?” suggests Garanca.
“It’s all about the relationships”
On a brighter note, we return to the current job and Garanca says she loves the Francesca Zambello production of Carmen, although it might, with its orange trees, donkeys and cheeky urchins, be too traditional for some tastes. “It doesn’t matter if a production is modern or classical,” she tells me, “It’s all about the relationships. You can do it in martian costumes and it doesn’t matter so long as the relationships are right.” Tristan attenders should take note! “The modernity is in what is going on between the people, whatever the settings,” adds Alagna.
He is not keen on the dialogue in Carmen, seeing it as an add-on that Bizet was obliged to include because the opera was first produced at the Opéra-Comique. “He wanted to do a Grand Opera not operetta,” he says, “and the words don’t work so well today, it’s very old-fashioned.” He demonstrates the unnatural delivery dictated by the dialogue with a ringing declamation that could surely have been heard all over the opera house, causing Royal Opera staff outside the room to turn and stare. Garanca is more comfortable with the spoken words, saying it gives one breathing space between the songs, although she confesses her French isn’t so good (“I have a horrible accent when I speak French”).
“I’ve never had a stage partner like him”
The two artists are predictably complimentary about each other. He says “She’s a star. You must see her. She’s amazing,” and she “I’ve never had a stage partner like him.” They’re aware how theatrical this sounds but it’s an expression of genuine admiration. “I saw her three times in Paris in Cenerentola,” he enthuses.
I ask them what repertoire they’d like to appear in together in the future and Alagna runs off a list of French operas, headed by Les Troyens (they both love Berlioz), and followed by La Damnation de Faust and Werther, all classic blendings of tenor and mezzo roles.
Alagna will be back at Covent Garden during the next couple of seasons, in Boheme and La Rondine as well as L’Elisir d’amore and Aida. There are no immediate further collaborations between them planned in London, so anyone wanting to see the special chemistry between these two highly attractive artists should get along to one of the remaining performances of Carmen. It plays at the Royal Opera House on 6, 10, 13, 21 and 24 October.