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by Frank Cadenhead
It was a high-risk venture that finished as a major triumph in Paris on Tuesday night (March 29, 2011). The superstar pianist Lang Lang, as part of a week’s residency, joined with the French tenor Roberto Alagna in a program of rare French arias at the historic Salle Pleyel. But the success of this “carte blanche” evening for Lang Lang was not automatically assured.
The French have a history of neglecting their rich musical heritage and the arias, with one exception, have not been heard in Paris in living memory. While some of this repertory is beginning to appear in regional opera houses, only the aria, “Anges du paradis” from Gounod’s Mireille, has been heard at the Paris Opera recently when that opera opened its previous season. Would the audience, even with these star names, warm to this effort?
Sometimes the omnivorous musical appetites of Lang Lang leads him to say yes to a project he has not had time to sufficiently digest prior to the performance. There was no hint of that this night. There was a vibrant rapport between the two extrovert stars with Lang Lang, no mere “accompanist” here, relishing the lovely melodies which began each aria.
Alagna sang with French style and clarity of expression uncommon on current world stages. A tenor at the heights of his power, the hall rang with his generous passion for these musical treasures. Including the Gounod, there were arias by Adolphe Adam (“Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire” from Le Postillon de Longjumeau), Edouard Lalo (“Vainement, ma bien-aimée” from Le Roi d’Ys), Ernest Reyer (“La bruit des chants” from Sigurd), Giacomo Meyerbeer (“Pays merveilleux… ô paradis” from L’Africaine) and Alfred Bruneau’s passionate “Le jour tombe, la nuit va bercer les grands chênes” (from L’Attaque du moulin), among others.
Toward the end, Alagna took a brief break to sip backstage tea (a result of Spring allergies) and the audience happily prodded Lang Lang into playing a second delicious Rachmaninov prelude. Lang Lang’s solo works, including Chopin etudes and a sensitive reading of Schumann’s “Träumerei.” were part of the evening’s program. With the unrestrained cheering at the end, Alagna and Lang, arm in arm, circled the stage like victorious bull-fighters, shaking hands and collecting bouquets of flowers. Clearly this music has strong appeal but could Parisian opera bosses still be unconvinced?
Alagna’s album of French Opera Arias (with Bertrand De Billy and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) contains a few of the arias he sang this night. Lang Lang had a live transmission the following day from the Cite de la Musique in Paris streamed on Medici.tv
. The concert was recorded by France Musique radio for later broadcasting with no date yet specified.