One of the most fearsome moments in all opera comes in the first act of Verdi's Aida. The tenor, barely warmed-up, must launch into Radames' great aria, "Celeste Aida," that surges to a B-flat at the words "vicin'al sol." Like many an Icarus, flying too close to the sun, it can make for an untimely meltdown.
I have a recording of a live performance of Aida by the great tenor, Carlo Bergonzi, him of the velvet voice and immaculate diction. Bergonzi flirted with the note, wavered queasily, and cracked. It's embarrassing to imagine that quasi-note preserved for all eternity, unless global warming leads to cosmic meltdown -- then who can worry about cracked notes?
The other night at La Scala, the tenor Roberto Alagni (no Bergonzi he) received some rough treatment from the fans after his try at the aria. Amidst jeers, he gave the audience the old Brooklyn Dodgers' salute and strode off ... never to return.
His stand-in, Antonello Palombi, was rushed unceremoniousy onto Zeffirelli's sumptuous stage (I know, I know: that's redundant), looking more like a stagehand in his black jeans than un primo tenore. Today's New York Times tells the story.
The performance started. Mr. Palombi stood in the wings to hear thesignature tenor aria Celeste Aida. Im a tenor, he explained. Hewas about 15 feet from the open stage. Then, he said, came a singersnightmare: boos and whistles.
I saw that Roberto was coming. I said, No, Roberto, dont do this thing, Mr. Palombi said. It was almost like a prayer.
Thestage manager happened to be standing close by. He took me and said,Go! Mr. Palombi immediately jumped into the part, singingmechanically. I was like a robot, he said.
The booingcontinued, along with cries of Shame! Others in the audience shushedthe noisemakers. When the conductor, Riccardo Chailly, saw that thingswere working, he smiled at Mr. Palombi. I thought, O.K., lets sing, the tenor said.
And sing he did, though not without some amusing realizations:
Mr. Palombi said odd thoughts had passed through his mind. Iremember thinking, Darn, Ive got my watch on. He said he loweredhis arm so his sleeve would cover the watch. Radames doesnt wear awatch, he said.