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Roberto Alagna: "Pasión"

spacer Songs from Central and South America. With Downs; Cassar, arranger and musical director. Texts and translations. Deutsche Grammophon 476 461 3

Latin Spice

Roberto Alagna delivers a bold concierto of songs from Central and South America.

AlagnaPasionCD

Whenever classical singers release crossover albums, they claim to have started out singing in nightclubs and cabarets, and that their latest effort represents a return to the music that's close to their hearts. Whether or not Sicilian–French tenor Roberto Alagna sang South American pop music in his student years, he's channeled his immense musical charisma into an authentic Latino sound, with plenty of sexy swing for a new recital disc, aptly named Pasión

In his 2005 blockbuster CD C'est Magnifique, the tenor explored repertoire of the Basque operetta singer Luis Mariano, who flourished in the 1950s. For his new disc, Alagna turns to some of Mariano's Spanish specialties in a revelatory tour of Central and South America, with enough Brazilian bossa novas, Cuban boleros and Argentine tangos to set your hips swaying and feet tapping faster than you can say "Salsa Class." 

Alagna doesn't pretend he's not a trained opera singer — there's no fussy, off-the-voice posing and no meddling with his attractively robust timbre — but he brings a loose rhythmic ease and a variety of colors to each number. Open-throated power, supported tone and long breath provide vocal class without distancing him emotionally, and he throws in a few high notes with good-natured bravura. Yet he's able to scale back the bel canto for a duet  with the wonderful Mexican singer/songwriter Lila Downs (who contributed to the soundtrack of the 2002 film Frida). 

In "Cielito lindo" , the tenor's enthusiastic yelps sound like a really good singer horsing around with the mariachi band at his local bar, and even in its tearful moments the entire disc exudes a sunny charm. (Listen for Alagna's chuckle at the end of "Ella" .)

Plenty of vocalists might hide their pop insecurities inside cheesy Vegas-style presentations, but Yvan Cassar's inventive and beautiful arrangements keep a straightforward nightclub feel. The mix of intimate accompaniments with exuberant big-band numbers always keeps the focus on the voice, and Cassar's instrumental choices and the versatility of the band highlight Alagna's musical urgency. 

The concertina-like bandoneón mirrors Alagna's clipped syllables in the tango "Esperanza" , while the quiet harp underscores the simplicity of the sturdy waltz-song "Paloma negra" . Trumpet licks enhance the hot ending of the Nat King Cole hit "Quizás, quizás, quizás." Flamenco guitar adds flavor to "La Llorona" and the duet "Historia de un amor," while the clarinet wail that begins "Dos Cruces"  hints at the dynamic and expressive range Alagna brings to his showy, operatic interpretation.

One of the best numbers is the traditional Mexican song "La Llorona" , in which Alagna's soft, plangent sobs paint the chorus effectively. The guitar improvisation in double time is especially witty, and the spare instrumentation highlights the song's expressive simplicity. Another superb understated performance is "El día que me quieras," in which Alagna's old-fashioned sound, replete with quick vibrato and little vocal turns, pays homage to the song's creator, Carlos Gardel. 

There are thrills aplenty in Alagna's full-throated "Piensa en mí," which opens the recital, and in his smoky-to-blazing delivery of "Bésame mucho." "Cu ti lu dissi" , a Sicilian song with a Latin-flavored refrain ("Ay, ay, ay, ay, moru, moru, moru, moru"), provides a built-in encore to this bold and spicy conciertospacer 

JUDITH MALAFRONTE

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Current Issue: July 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 1