MILAN — An understudy taking over from an actor who’s taken ill is the stuff of legend, but it can’t be easy being one who’s yanked from the wings to replace a star who’s being loudly booed.

“It wasn’t the La Scala debut I had imagined,” chuckles tenor Antonello Palombi, who shot to international renown last week after replacing star Roberto Alagna in the lead role of Radames in “Aida.” Alagna was booed and hissed at by the audience at a Dec. 10 performance after he sang the opera’s first aria. The audience reaction most likely stemmed from incendiary criticisms he’d made on opera critics and Teatro alla Scala attendees rather than for his performance, but it resulted in Alagna storming off stage and being permanently dropped from the production.

“I said, ‘What the heck is going to happen now? Nothing like this has ever happened before,'” recalls Palombi, who made his debut in a wrinkled black shirt and black jeans with a head of tousled curls. The understudy’s entrance prompted a few audience cries of, “Vergogna,” or “For shame,” but Palombi was unfazed.

“I became even louder than they were,” he says. “Right away there was a high note and I put my whole soul into it and right after that I heard people shh-ing each other.”

Palombi, who managed to change into his gilded costume late into the first act, says he’s just thankful he chose not to wear his standard snakeskin cowboy boots to the theater.

But the tenor, 45, is no stranger to serendipity. Before studying music and embarking on a 10-year career, he worked as a carabiniere in Florence where, off duty one day, he saved two people from a fire.

Clearly the gods, whether they be of good fashion sense, Egyptian mythology or otherwise, were on his side. With each scene, he looked and sounded more confident, striding about a set of Vegas-like proportions designed by Franco Zeffirelli. Still, he appeared stunned when he emerged for his final solo bow, holding his face in his hands for an extra few moments of disbelief.

Palombi says he was moved by the camaraderie the La Scala cast, crew and audience showed him, but he is quick to characterize it as a bittersweet experience. He’s disappointed his wife and two young daughters in Pisa missed his big break, and he’s equally sorry to see the audience criticize Alagna.

This story first appeared in the December 18, 2006 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

However, Palombi stops there when it comes to talking about his former colleague, who, since his dramatic La Scala exit, has been making plenty of noise. In recent days, Alagna has told the Italian press that he’s suing La Scala for breach of contract and that he wasn’t feeling well the day of the performance. He’s also alleged there was a plot to oust him from his role. Despite this flurry of words and activity, a spokesman for his label, Universal, says Alagna is not giving any more interviews.

But La Scala doesn’t want Alagna back. The theater has cast well-known Walter Fraccaro for all but two of the remaining “Aida” performances. Palombi will sing Radames on Tuesday and again on Jan. 3. He also will grace La Scala’s stage in 2008, starring in Giacomo Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” as originally planned.

Palombi remains unfazed by the controversy, instead focusing on Tuesday’s performance. In his view, his unconventional La Scala debut was just a warm-up.

“I’m still new to La Scala,” he says. “For me, I’m still thinking of [Tuesday’s performance] as a debut.”

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