The Times: "For as long as the passion remains and the flame is alight we will continue to sing"
Two days ago they were called "the Romeo and Juliette of opera". Today the same interviewer, Penny Marshall, entitles her article in The Times Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna: the Liz Taylor and Richard Burton of opera. Aham... she can't make up her mind. So what's next? Why do people love comparisons so much? These two are amazingly unique. As simple as that.
Thanks to the thoughtful sender of this article. Much appreciated!
"On her way," said the text simply, as an advance team warned us that the world's most famous diva was approaching, slowly climbing the Grand Staircase at the Royal Opera House, "But she is alone." Panic. "This won't work without both of them," I hiss to the press officer waiting with me, mindful that opera's most romantic couple are also known as opera's most temperamental team. I'd just seen them sing undying love to each other on stage in rehearsal for Puccini's La bohème, but that was an hour ago, and in the world of Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, that is long enough for a torrent of emotion, long enough for an act of real-life opera.
For anything is possible when it comes to opera's golden couple. Their romance off-stage has mirrored the operas they headline around the world, and their behaviour on-stage would occasionally have been better hidden in the wings. At stake today is not just my interview, but their emotional reunion singing La bohème at Covent Garden. Last night's performance, the first of two at the ROH, marks 20 years since the couple's voices were discovered, and their passion for each other was too — and two years since they split and swore they would never again sing together as long as they both still lived. Both performances have long been sold out. As the team reassures me not to read drama into Alagna's delay, Gheorghiu sweeps in alone with such elegant confidence I'm left wondering if it hasn't been choreographed.
She is immediately centre stage. All calm, commanding chic; svelte and immaculately controlled in a white tight-fitting dress with flat red pretty pumps. No killer heels. Her reputation suggests she doesn't need them. Divas don't often do small talk easily, but Gheorghiu seems genuinely interested when I tell her that I covered the Romanian revolution in 1989 as a journalist. Her eyes flame with passion, clearly at ease talking about things that matter, and one of them is her homeland. We talk of tyranny and freedom, and of the children who suffered under Ceausescu.
Gheorghiu was a music student in Bucharest at the time of the revolution, still the unknown daughter of a train driver and a dressmaker, but already in possession of the soprano voice that propelled her to worldwide fame. She leaves nothing to chance. She knows where she wants to sit for my TV interview, "This is my best side." She wants to know what excerpts from the rehearsal we filmed we will use, "I must know." And even her husband, when he does arrive, and we breathe a collective sigh of relief, has his anti-shine make-up carefully applied by her. His stage entrance was very different.
He's all breezy, Latin, spontaneous charm, with flowing locks. He's wearing a tight beige V-neck jumper with a nonchalant matching scarf, his manner easy. Like Gheorghiu his beginnings are humble: the son of Sicilian immigrants to Paris, a bricklayer and seamstress. He grew up with his grandmother's tales of his great grandfather who owned a shop in Manhattan's Little Italy, met Caruso and sung for the Mafia. He speaks English with a honeycomb French accent and has the charm of a hand-kissing romantic lead. It's hard to believe this is the only tenor in the history of La Scala to storm off stage while the orchestra was still playing after he was booed from the gods. "If the public whistles me, it does not deserve me," he'd said at the time. He was sacked — but he didn't seem to care.
Both these singers I am aware have a history of petulance and turbulence, so I proceed with caution. But they are candid when I ask them about their recent separation after more than a decade of marriage. "In every marriage you have ups and downs," she says, before he insists "It wasn't a real separation anyway — we spoke on the phone every day." But they announced it as more than that at the time and it caused headlines around the world, not least because the couple stopped singing together. But today they dismiss the rupture, as if it were the ordinary midlife crisis of a suburban couple. "After 40 years you start to feel like you have some crisis and you jump on it," Roberto says smiling. "We are normal people but we know now we are meant to be together. To be together to sing together and yes — probably to die together," he laughs. Alagna and Gheorgiou met 20 years ago at Covent Garden also performing in La bohème. It was love at first sight. But they were both married to other people and it wasn't until two years later that their relationship flourished, once again on stage in London in La traviata. By then Roberto's first wife had died tragically of a brain tumour. Even now, he told me, he finds singing Mimi's death scene in La bohème's final act heart-wrenching because of the memories it brings back of that loss. They were finally married in New York by its opera-loving mayor, Rudy Guiliani, in 1996. Together they have brought up Alagna's daughter from his first marriage and the daughter of Gheorghiu's sister and husband, who were killed in a car accident.
Their love is based on more than a shared love of opera. "I didn't marry Roberto to sing with him. They are two different parts of my life," says Angela, who admits that she actually finds dueting with him difficult at times because it intensifies the emotion of the performance. "When you sing with someone and you know each sound, each breath, every little detail, it's very, hard because you care so much about them, and about their performance as well as yours. It's simply exhausting."
He on the other hand tells me it's simply fabulous to sing with a woman he loves, that it's easier in fact to do so. They disagree gently about singing La bohème, but there are no fireworks. Perhaps they have settled down on the other side of their midlife crisis.
They seem gentler than billed, mellower too. He's 49, she's 46, and in London this week they were a couple celebrating an anniversary; a couple nostalgic for their youth, for the Bohème of 1992 where they first met as singers new to London. He admits to being a little embarrassed to be reprising the role of Rodolfo in middle age. He thinks Bohème is a young person's opera, and that its enduring power lies in the way it captures youth.
Mimi's death, he says is forever tragic because it marks the end of youthful innocence. "Singing Bohème for us now gives us the illusion of being young," he says. "And it's very difficult at our age to sing. You must be fresh and full of hope for the future. When your story is behind you, it's difficult to manage that."
They both have plans to sing again at Covent Garden separately and soon. She in Puccini's La rondine in summer next year and he in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore in November". I pray to God I keep my voice," she says quietly. "For as long as the passion remains and the flame is alight we will continue to sing."