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Roberto Alagna: "Malèna"

CD Button London Orchestra, Cassar. Texts and translations. Deutsche Grammophon 4814733

Recordings Alagna Cover 517
Critics Choice Button 1015

OPENHEARTED JOY  permeates Roberto Alagna’s invigorating disc of Neapolitan and Sicilian songs old and new, which he named after his young daughter, Malèna. The title song is a dedication to her, with words by Alagna and music by his brother Frederico. The song’s minor key underscores the poignancy of his child’s inevitable growing up, conveying a vulnerable outpouring of parental love so deep it’s almost inexpressible. From his present circumstances, Alagna whisks us into the past with a brief introduction to the Neapolitan section, Eduardo Alfieri’s “Se parla ’e Napule,” engineered with an endearing, old-fashioned radio crackle. This launches directly into a rousing “Marechiare,” followed by a “Core ’ngrato” so heart-on-sleeve that one can imagine Alagna throwing himself off a cliff into the Mediterranean after his abandonment by the eternally ungrateful Catarì. “Torna a Surriento” builds from easy charm to expressive urgency, while the infectious patter of “Come facette Mametta” trips fluently off the tenor’s tongue. 

Frederico Alagna’s compositions are some of the most beguiling on the recording. His “Etna” introduces the Sicilian songs with a primal beat and prominent guitar-strumming that heralds a rockier, earthier musical landscape than that of sunny, carefree Naples. He also contributes two tarantellas, the jaunty “Napolitanella” and its Sicilian counterpart, the more astringent “Sicilianedda.” His melancholy “Amuri feritu” brings out a duskier, mellow sound in his brother’s midrange. (The third Alagna brother, David, contributed the disc’s finale, “Libertà,” which by comparison is slushy and derivative.)

The more familiar titles benefit from being stripped down to their musical essence. “O sole mio” gets an intimate, almost lullaby-like treatment with a delicate guitar accompaniment that makes it hardly recognizable from the souped-up, over-orchestrated versions that overtake so many crossover albums. “Funiculì funiculà,” with its featured mandolin and background singers, sounds like an impromptu festival in the town square, while “Tu si da mia” and “I’ te vurria vasà” weave romantic, late-night spells. Throughout, Alagna’s genuine connection to these songs and his easy approach, even in the throes of emotion, provide a refreshingly unshowy performance. He clearly loves these songs, and it’s impossible not to be won over by his sincerity, vocal clarity and ebullience.  —Joanne Sydney Lessner 

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