The opera world has been buzzing all week about French- Sicilian tenor Roberto Alagna storming off the stage after he was booed during a performance of Verdi's "Aida" on Sunday at La Scala in Milan, Italy. The venerable opera house's loggionisti -- the upper-balcony ticket holders -- are notoriously ill-mannered.
Commentators and bloggers have ratcheted up the controversy -- it's exactly the kind of delicious scandal opera lovers love -- while Alagna himself has fanned the flames, saying there was a plot against him and likening the "danger" he felt he was in to John Lennon's assassination. Later he said he had low blood sugar. But whatever the reason, he's instructed his lawyers to sue the theater because it annulled his contract.
One voice trying to make itself heard above the din is that of Antonello Palombi, the tenor who immediately stepped on stage for Alagna to finish the act in jeans and a casual shirt. During the intermission, he donned costume and makeup for the rest of the opera. Alagna suggested in an interview with the New York Times that Palombi was part of a plot against him because the tenor was ready to go on, without missing a beat.
Palombi is trying to set the record straight. "Excuse me, I'm losing my voice," Palombi said in a phone interview with the Los Angeles Times from Milan. "I will have not enough to sing my performance on the 19th. But I want to make the real story known."
Palombi said he signed for two performances of "Aida" -- Dec. 19 and Jan. 3 -- and also to be a "cover" or available substitute.
"Sunday morning, the theater told me I had to be reachable," he said. "At 4:20 p.m., they called me in for a costume fitting and told me I had to stay. I waited until 6:15 and asked, 'Mr. Alagna is arriving?' 'We don't know.' I just started to warm up my voice. Three minutes later, I see Mr. Alagna coming in. [I said to him:] 'Hi, Roberto, I'm very happy to see you. Now I can relax.' "
After the performance started, Palombi was sitting near the stage, talking with a pianist, he said. "I hear Mr. Alagna singing well, no problem. End of the aria, applause starts. Then after, someone starts to boo and scream. What is going on? I saw Roberto coming off of stage. 'No, Roberto, please don't do this.' Now what is going on?
"The stage manager grabbed me, said, 'Go over there.' 'Me? Like this?' 'Yes.' I had to go, it was my duty, I am a cover. If I refuse, I would have some penalty.
"My blood was so ice. I just felt so uncomfortable. I was not wearing a costume. I was over there without makeup. Oh, my God, what am I doing here? I had no time to think. But, thank God, maybe he put his hand over me, giving me to be quiet, take it easy. I thought my life was going before my eyes, what I did until, all my career, was being seen in that moment. My debut at La Scala, I dreamed it would be different."
Palombi, incidentally, wasn't the only alternate in the role. Yu Qiang Dai also was announced but then pulled out. His dates were taken over by Walter Fraccaro.
Although some singers might be thrilled to be thrust into the limelight as he was at La Scala, Palombi isn't.
"I prefer to make my career step by step," he said. "I want to make my career slowly. I was very happy to sing two performances of 'Aida.' For me, it is enough. I was there because I had to be."
Palombi, who was born in Spoleto, Italy, made his U.S. debut as the hero Dick Johnson in Puccini's "La fanciulla del West" for Seattle Opera in 2004 to rapturous reviews. He is due back at La Scala in 2008 to sing "Manon Lescaut" under conductor Riccardo Chailly, who was at the podium for "Aida."
Palombi's next engagements in the U.S. will be Puccini's "Tosca" for Baltimore Opera in May and Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" for Seattle Opera in January 2008.
As for his sudden La Scala debut, Palombi is happy with his reception. "The audience was very kind," he said. "When everybody went for the bow, they give me a very big hug with applause. I cannot say it was just because I helped save the performance or because I was a good singer. I like to think both together."
His own assessment?
"Not too bad. Not too bad."