Alagna is too good for this 'crossover' Christmas album
Joy Fleisig | New York, NY United States | 03/18/2001
(3 out of 5 stars)
"I was hoping that Roberto Alagna, who is not only one of the finest lyric tenors of our time, but also one of the most intelligent and adventurous, would record a traditionally 'classical' Christmas album. This would be perhaps something along the lines of his 'Sacred Songs' CD, including many rarities instead of the same old carols everybody knows. Instead, we get the 'crossover' style Christmas album that has become popular with far too many opera singers. Alagna admittedly does include SOME carols outside the standard repertory, but not enough to be that interesting. Actually, I'm giving this disc 3 ½ stars, not just 3, largely because Alagna's singing is (almost) enough to make up for its other deficiencies.In making this Christmas album, Alagna wanted a mix of classical and pop styles, similar to the old 'Hollywood' albums like those made by his idols Mario Lanza and French tenor Tino Rossi. The disc is a mixture of languages and cultures as well as musical styles. Alagna was born in France to Sicilian parents, and these two languages and Italian are his native tongues. Thanks to his marriage to the extraordinary Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, he is now fluent in that language as well. His English is always clear and understandable, if heavily accented. His German still needs some work, but is by no means bad. Most of the selections are given multilingual renditions. In 'Silent Night' for example, the first verse is sung in French, the second in German, and the third in English, there are bits of Italian in 'Jingle Bells' and most of the French or Latin carols are repeated in English (a pity about the awful translation for 'Ave Maria'). It's a pity he includes no carols in Sicilian.My biggest problem with this album is the incredibly overdone and often too loud pop style arrangements (mostly by conductor Robin Smith), complete with not one but three children's choirs. The worst 'victim' of the arrangements is 'In dulce jubilo', turning a simple, angelic tune into a headbanger. Often while I was listening I wished that had been simply Alagna and his guitar, especially for his own composition 'Gentil Pere Noel', a simple, catchy, up-and-down-the-scale melody similar to 'Joy to the World' .The one song entirely free from this overdone style, and for this reason the best track on the CD, is the gorgeous, haunting Romanian carol, 'O ce veste minunata'. It is sung by Alagna softly and sweetly with complete simplicity and honesty, backed only by a very discreet choir which actually accompanies him instead of trying to overwhelming him.The documentation doesn't help much either. There are some cheerful notes from both Alagna and producer Jeff Jarratt, as well as lots of pictures of the very handsome tenor. But it is unforgivable that there are no texts or translations, only very brief notes about the origins about the various carols and an occasional synopsis. Translations may not be necessary for the familiar carols which he sings at least partially in English, but no matter how good his diction is, they ARE necessary for those selections entirely in other languages. Certainly we should have been given the words to 'Gentil Pere Noel'. And how many people outside Romania know 'O ce veste minunata', which isn't even given a synopsis?However, little of what is wrong with this disc is Alagna's fault. He obviously had a ball recording it - one can hear him grinning throughout virtually every track and his enthusiasm is infectious. He also has an almost childlike sincerity that is perfect for this repertory. A few picky moments aside, he's in very good voice, and he gets ample opportunity to show off some very impressive tenor high notes. Besides the aforementioned 'O ce veste minunata', there are a few other selections on the disc that are absolutely wonderful. First is a delightful medley of 'Jingle Bells', 'Deck The Halls' and 'Sleigh Ride', where Alagna, unlike the Three Tenors on THEIR Christmas album, actually knows what the word 'yoohoo' means. 'Guardian Angels' (written by Harpo Marx!) is to my ears a very JEWISH melody reminiscent of 'Kol Nidre', sung by Alagna with almost cantorial intensity. Indeed, he very nearly left me in tears! I also liked his heroic rendition of 'Adeste Fideles' .Alagna was a cabaret singer in his teens, and thus can sing overtly pop material more idiomatically than most opera singers. I was a bit taken aback by his John Denver-esque beginning of 'The Love of A Child' (not inappropriate as it sounds much like Denver's 'Annie's Song'), but the song grew on me as his true voice began to ring out. 'Petit Papa Noel' could have used another take due to a couple of iffy high notes, but he sings it as if to a child he loves - indeed, he HAS often sung it to his daughter as a lullaby. The one major misstep Alagna makes is with 'White Christmas', where he is obviously trying to imitate Bing Crosby and not doing a very good job of it. Note to certain critics - THIS is what Alagna sounds like when he croons. It is NOT what he sounds like when he sings an operatic pianissimo. Thank heaven.It took multiple hearings for me to like this disc as much as I did, and I suspect that many listeners, including opera lovers who otherwise admire Alagna, will not want to play it more than once.There is material with him coming out that I am FAR more interested in, notably a superb CD of French arias, a bel canto CD, and a complete Tosca with Gheorghiu. Still, Alagna (unlike a certain other gentleman) shows here what even pop material sounds like with a REAL voice, and hopefully he can get pop fans listening to it to graduate to real opera."