Two young tenors hit all the right notes


Roberto Alagna sings tenor arias by Verdi, Rossini, Puccini and others, with Richard Armstrong conducting the London Philharmonic (EMI CDC 55477); "The Artistry of Fernando de la Mora," tenor arias by Verdi, Puccini, Bizet and others, with Charles Mackerras conducting the Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera (CD-80411)

Even more than sopranos, tenors have an extraordinary pull on the emotions of the public. Although they were highly valued as far back as the all-male choirs of the early Middle Ages, tenors have enjoyed their greatest popularity ever since 19th-century grand opera cast castrati out of the theater and composers began to relearn how to write for the tenor voice.

Enrico Caruso was the man who put the recording industry on the map; he sold millions of records in the early years of this century. Even today, tenors are the classical-music figures with the greatest chance of crossover -- witness the success of "The Three Tenors" albums and videos.

Fine tenors are scarcer than ever and have never been in such demand. It is, therefore, a pleasure to hear two such gifted lyric tenors in their debut albums. Roberto Alagna, born in France of Sicilian parents, and Fernando de la Mora, born in Mexico, would appear to have a lot in common: They are about the same age (de la Mora made his debut with the San Francisco Opera in 1987 and Alagna his with Glyndebourne in 1988); they sing many of the same pieces (six of the same arias appear on each disc); and they take many of the same roles (Verdi's Alfredo and Duke of Mantua, the Fausts of Gounod and Boito, and Puccini's Rodolfo are just a few).

These young men -- given good health and the sense to use their voices sensibly -- should contend with each other for years to come. And despite their similarities, they have rather different voices -- voices that remind one of the distinctions between Pavarotti and Domingo 25 years ago. It is significant that de la Mora doesn't appear to sing Rossini and that Alagna does. The latter has the lighter, sweeter, more focused voice necessary for Rossini, and he is likely to be the singer to whom the general public will be most responsive. (His April debut at the Met in "La Boheme" is much anticipated and is likely to be one of the hottest tickets in New York this season.)

Alagna's timbre is rather similar to that of the young Pavarotti, and his Italianate passion is curbed by French elegance. (He studied in both countries.) He may not have quite the emotional TTC largess of Pavarotti -- though he comes close -- but his boyish good looks should surely compensate. Alagna's version of Rodolfo's "Che gelida manina!" from Puccini's "Boheme" is simply terrific -- its sentimental appeal, heady insouciance and control call to mind such names as di Stefano and Bjorling. De la Mora's fine version, by comparison, sounds ever so slightly earthbound.

But as one listens more to the Mexican, one begins to suspect that he is at least Alagna's equal in musicianship and that he may -- like Domingo -- last longer. De la Mora's voice has a slightly baritonal quality; he has more power and size, and he responds to words with immediacy and emotion. His passionate and powerful delivery of Alfredo's "De' miei bollenti spiriti" in Verdi's "Traviata," for example, suggests the day may come when de la Mora will deliver such qualities in the same composer's much more demanding "Otello."

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