Opera's 'golden couple' reaches new audiences

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Roberto Alagna was 10 years old when he first saw the classic Hollywood film "The Great Caruso," starring Mario Lanza as the celebrated Italian tenor. The movie changed Alagna's life.

"[Caruso] was like 'Robin Hood,' " Mr. Alagna remembers. "He was a great hero for me. I decided then to become a tenor."

Now, as two of the most respected singers in the opera world, Alagna and his wife, soprano Angela Gheorghiu, are making their own films, which they hope will bring the rich world of opera to other impressionable 10-year-olds, as well as to the public at large.

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The reigning "golden couple" of the opera world, Alagna and Gheorghiu have two projects premièring next month that showcase the depth and diversity of opera on film. On July 1, PBS begins airing Charles Gounod's "Romeo & Juliet," as part of its "Great Performances" series. July 12 marks the release of Puccini's masterpiece "Tosca" in US movie theaters.

In both projects, Alagna and Gheorghiu light up the screen with their charisma. They are not only two of the most attractive high-profile singers in the operatic world, but among the most artistically acclaimed. They also have a spate of recordings to their credit (including the "Tosca" soundtrack).

The Romanian-born Gheorghiu is known for her luminous, velvety soprano that can soar with ardent lyricism. The remarkable tenor Alagna, born in France of Sicilian parents, sings with a radiant purity. His voice is capable of a thrilling, expressive edge without straining. The two have been married since 1996, after meeting in 1992, when they sang the love-struck Mimi and Rodolfo in "La Bohème."

"When you are in love with a woman, the possibility to see her in these different characters is the most beautiful gift you can receive from God," Alagna says. "It is never routine between us as a couple. All the time, you fall in love again."

He adds, "Maybe this is the reason audiences likes to see us together. We have a real duet. Sometimes between a tenor and soprano, it's a fight. With us, two voices become one, and the ... emotions are true."

Though the couple is rumored to be temperamental and a bit capricious, Benoit Jacquot, the director of "Tosca," says that "diva" quality is partly what makes Alagna and Gheorghiu dynamic onscreen. "Their lifestyle lend[s] real meaning to the word 'star,' " he says. Through the expressive force of singing, they reach something rarely seen in the cinema, with a sort of naturalness."

Says Chris Hunt, producer of "Romeo & Juliet": "They ... threw themselves into every scene with boundless energy, kept going for very long hours, and were as easy to work with."

Though "Romeo & Juliet" and "Tosca" offer dramatically different approaches to putting opera on film, both are ambitious projects. "Romeo & Juliet," directed by Barbara Sweete, was shot at the 13th-century Royal Castle of Zvikov in the Czech Republic. The outdoor shots and highly stylized, slightly surreal staging create a palpable sense of another time and place.

Filming was done in increments, with many cuts and camera changes. Surprisingly, there were no close-ups: The singers had to emote with their whole bodies.

The 90-minute telecast streamlines the opera to center on its arias and its four famous love duets. While this production maintains the story's narrative arc, it loses dramatic tension and continuity. What it gains is a manageable length that may make it more appealing to TV audiences.

"Tosca," which premièred at the Venice Film Festival last year, captures more of the quality of a live performance. However, it is actually three films in one. The fully costumed operatic performance is intercut with black-and-white documentary footage of the sound score being recorded. It also includes scenes of the "Tosca" settings around Rome. Purists will likely complain that the collage of visuals interrupts the drama and the music.

Mr. Jacquot's use of fairly static closeups that feature a good deal of scenery highlight the melodrama rather than the opera's musical and emotional depth.

It is through vivid, richly textured cinematography that "Tosca" takes filmed opera to a new level of invention. Neither production uses the traditional method of filming a staged performance. Thus the challenge for singers was to lip-sync to a prerecorded soundtrack. Opera singers are not used to singing exactly the same way in each performance, so performing in both films required extensive coaching.

"It was a very strange sensation," Alagna says. "You need to be very controlled." The pair's next film will be Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci," set for production in Sicily next year. For Alagna, these films provide a way to reach a wider audience.

Since "Tosca" was released in France, Alagna says more people recognize him: "People are calling out to me on the street, people who would never go to the opera."

"I arrived in the world of opera by [watching] movies," he says. "If, with these movies, I can give the same [inspiration] for another young singer, I would be the most happy man in the world."

• 'Romeo & Juliet,' by Charles Gounod, airs July 1 at 10 p.m. (PBS). Check local listings. 'Tosca,' by Giacomo Puccini, will be released in US cinemas July 12.

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