Cher Public

Homage girl

It would be a shame, I think, if EMI’s stunt video of Angela Gheorghiu “in duet” with Maria Callas backfired powerfully enough to prevent serious opera fans (well, okay, let’s say “enthusiastic opera fans,” that’s more like it) from listening to the Romanian diva’s new CD Homage to Maria Callas. There’s a lot on this mixed-grill disc to enjoy.

Gheorghiu is now in her mid-40s (46, according to her official bio) and she’s been singing professionally for at least 25 years. Here’s one of the earliest YouTube clips of the young Angela Burlacu in 1986:

And a performance from just a few months ago:

What interests me here is not the small but noticeable changes in the voice (the weaker lower-middle register, a slight edge on the highest notes) but rather how well the instrument is preserved: a pure lyric soprano with a slightly veiled quality that opens excitingly into brilliance on top, plus an easy access to a “mixed” chest voice in the lower fifth of the range.

She’s never had a big sound, and generally she has never pushed for size. Instead, she’s either kept a steely eye on the conductor to hold down the orchestra or, other times, simply allowed the band to cover her, especially in passages that are either of secondary musical importance or (one suspects) less grateful to the voice.

What this new disc puts on display admirably is the rare beauty of the voice and, more to the point, Gheorghiu’s fetching musicality. She has a fine instinct for legato and the shape of a phrase, and, more to the point, the singing always communicates feeling.

Now, the range of emotion Gheorghiu can evoke is not especially broad: she is especially fluent at being wistful (as in the album opener “Donde lieta uscì”), but unlike a lot of sopranos, she doesn’t wallow in sadness. She’s always on the inside, experiencing, instead of on the outside, observing and judging.

This selection illustrates the point: no sobs, no exaggerated vibrato, just a quiet sense of resigned heartbreak behind a gallant half-smile. As in all her music, she favors a relatively fast tempo here, but in context it works: this scene is not about self-indulgence but rather trying to break off a relationship with a minimum of rancor: best to do it quietly but firmly.

The other Gheorghiu emotional trademark is manic fascination, as she demonstrates on the second cut, the “Jewel Song” from Faust. Again the aria is quite fast (Marco Armiliato and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra are her faithful followers) and Gheorghiu stays in tempo most of the time, with only the slightest lingering on “Ah, s’il était ici!” While I don’t think the soprano consciously mapped out a plan to attack just ahead of the beat or to rush the ends of a few phrases, these little tweaks to the otherwise straightforward quick waltz rhythm strikingly suggest the character’s fatal lack of impulse control.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is singing actress territory: for one thing, Gheorghiu is not that specific an artist: basically she does what’s on the page. The other point is that what she does is almost always ravishing simply as singing, the voice supple and even, a firm little trill to launch the aria, suave scales and the last phrase done in a single breath without rushing, the high B clear and ringing but in proportion to the rest of the phrase.

In a way, doing an homage to Maria Callas is ironic for Gheorghiu: they are very nearly polar opposites as singers. True, they could produce some remarkably similar-sounding effects when singing long phrases in middle voice. But for Callas this was something of an acquired virtue, the tone needing some manipulation to produce an even effect. With Gheorghiu it seems more instinctive, even inborn. She is not consciously aware of creating all these effects. Rather, I believe Gheorghiu’s sound simply has star quality; as the old Hollywood definition has it, the voice is interesting even when it’s doing nothing.

The differences between the divas are significant, though. Gheorghiu shows little affinity for bel canto beyond the basic loveliness of her legato. The myriad tiny changes of tempo and emphasis that illuminate a Bellini melody like “Col sorriso d’innocenza,” from Il pirata, the sort of unfussy detail that was Callas’s genius: that’s not anything Gheorghiu can get a handle on. Her performance is square, almost singsong. Later, as the line sprouts ornamentation, she sounds like she’s sight-reading, the various leaps and quick scale figures unprepared and hasty. It’s the only real failure on the disc.

Surprisingly, on “Dei tuoi figli la madre” and “Pleurez mes yeux,” two dramatic soprano arias far out of her fach, Gheorghiu sings ravishingly—in miniature as it were. Cherubini’s Medea here sounds youthful, injured, speaking to her betrayer intimately, almost whispering in his ear. Of all recordings of this aria I’ve heard, this one is closest to what I think an 18 th century performance might have sounded like, poised and elegant even in a moment of anguish.

The Massenet, too, is a young girl’s plaint, once again in a brisk tempo, but with a lovely filigree to the sweeping phrases. Gheorghiu negotiates the chest voice easily, using mostly a “closed” tone that matches the cool, smoky middle register. For special emphasis, she can also open up the chest to a throaty, throbbing cry.

This finesse in the lower register also informs “La mamma morta,” where Gheorghiu’s very slim tone in the opening section (admittedly not a valid approach in a staged production) suggests Maddalena’s emotional fragility. The shift to very soft dynamics early on also enables Gheorghiu to build the climax of the aria into the effect of a fortissimo even though in absolute terms the top of the voice doesn’t get all that loud. The long phrases banging at the passaggio (which almost all Maddalenas simplify to save up for the high B) hold no terrors for Gheorghiu: as she leans into the voice more here, the vibrato widens just a bit, thrillingly, and the top note again is in the context of the whole paragraph of music, the crest of the phrase and not a whole separate event.

The most gorgeous singing on the disc, I think, is the opening section of the “Ballatella,” airy and dreamy, with a true, haunting piano high A on “O che bel sole di mezz’agosto!” It’s hard to imagine a truly ethereal Nedda, but this is what Gheorghiu achieves, a sort of Calabrian Mélisande. And if that’s not exotic enough for you, this cut also offers an example of Gheorghiu’s one real eccentricity of diction, a “b” consonant substituting for “v” as some Spanish speakers do. Thus “Banno laggiù berso un paese strano.” See also the soprano’s sleek, long-breathed “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix,” in which she seems to command Samson to rock a Jewess to sleep (“Berce-moi, berce-moi l’hebresse?”)

That bizarrerie aside, a final aspect of the Gheorghiu personality only suggested so far in this discussion is the quality of diva that can be called valor if it comes off and gall if it doesn’t. The “Habanera” video with Callas is an example of the latter, but there’s a certain bravery in programming the Traviata double aria at this point in Gheorghiu’s career, coming up on two decades since her breakthrough performance of that opera at Covent Garden.

On this CD she demonstrates that both voice and personality remain a sleek fit for Verdi’s courtesan. The opening recitative and slow movement (both verses) Gheorghiu keeps intimate, almost hushed, drawing the listener in closer and closer. Then she takes the cabaletta at an almost frightening clip, faster than most “coloratura” sopranos would dare. The coda phrase “dee volare il mio pensiero” sounds literally true, a “flight of ideas” symptomatic of bipolar disorder. At this tempo, the quick scale passages sound aspirated and a few other ornaments get a bit smudged. But this is a Violetta who vibrates with excitement, no victim but rather a tragic heroine with the seeds of her destruction sown in her psyche.

The book surrounding the CD is amusing, offering heavily styled photos of Gheorghiu in Callasesque poses, with archival images of La Divina on opposite pages for easy comparison. An essay presents a few quotations from Gheorghiu that sound heavily mediated, if not downright invented, by a PR team, though it’s hard to read much of anything in typography consisting of teensy white fonts on a bisque background. (Aria texts are bisque on white, which isn’t much better, though the girliness of the effect is very much in keeping with the “Disney Princess” styling of the diva’s photo shoot.)

It’s a campy cliché to say about a singer “she’s never dull.” Angela Gheorghiu, though, is fascinating for many very good reasons, and this CD is an attractive souvenir of her practically infinite variety.

  • diva2themax

    Nice review! I’m definitely getting it I love Gheorghiu & have never been disappointed with her recordings. Always exciting & filled with emotion.

  • Thanks for this, cara Cieca. I don’t necessarily subscribe to your analysis of the differences between the two soprane, but I invariably cherish two phrases:

    “What this new disc puts on display admirably is the rare beauty of the voice and, more to the point, Gheorghiu’s fetching musicality. She has a fine instinct for legato and the shape of a phrase, and, more to the point, the singing always communicates feeling.”

    and

    “I believe Gheorghiu’s sound simply has star quality; as the old Hollywood definition has it, the voice is interesting even when it’s doing nothing.” (don’t know how to italicize here).

    The Love that Dareth Not Speak Its Name, Angela Gheorghiu.

    Thanks for a lovely review.

  • grimoaldo

    I am very pleasantly surprised to see such a nice positive review of AG here when the mere mention of her name on this site usually brings catty vitriolic remarks.
    Thank you La C!
    The Callas thing seems just like a silly bit of marketing to me, Callas was not particularly known for Marguerite in Faust was she?
    Whereas that is one of AG’s best parts, I saw her do the role and quite a few others at Covent Garden and really thought she was wonderful.
    A terrible shame that the Met is being denied her Marguerite in the new Faust with Kaufmann because she would not appear in the production from the ENO which will be, let’s see how to put it, not universally enjoyed. The Met would have done better to scrap the production and keep Angela.

    • Clita del Toro

      grimoaldo; If they did a new production of Faust, they may have been afraid she would not show up!

  • but there’s a certain bravery in programming the Traviata double aria at this point in Gheorghiu’s career,

    Why is it brave?? She’s 46 and should be in her prime. If it’s brave it has nothing to do with her age.

    • Damn html tags. The first sentence was supposed to blockquote, not the balance.

    • Your argument makes perfect sense in an abstract world devoid of real experience. In the real world, where a singer’s active career generally runs not much more than 20 years, there will be comparisons made between “now” and “then,” particularly in so technically demanding an aria. There are some singers, even widely revered ones like Joan Sutherland, who wound up with a good deal of egg on their faces revisiting a favorite role on disc a couple of decades later. So, “brave.”

      • Clita del Toro

        Well I guess it is brave in a way. But, if as he sang/recorded the aria and they were not up to par, or she was not happy with them, she would have surely left them off the CD.

        • According to WIKI……Joan would have been 46 in 1972. I don’t think she was accumulating egg on her face at that time.

          • I’m not talking about 1972. I’m talking about remakes of material recorded 20 years before, e.g., Sutherland’s late career discs of Norma, Sonnambula and Traviata, none of which do much service to her legend. Sutherland in 1972 could hardly revist any of her “great roles” from 20 years earlier because Decca didn’t think there was much a market for a stereo Clotilde.

            Here is an example of Sutherland revisiting a role on recording 20 years later, and it’s not “brave,” it’s foolhardy.

            But I take it all back. Singing a role at 46 is exactly like singing it at 29, because of interest, and not principal, and Leontyne Price sang a high E when she was 80, and Birgit Nilsson used to perform Queen of the Night, and Tebaldi sang more bel canto roles than Callas, and Rosa Ponselle’s technique.

          • lorenzo.venezia

            LaC, I heard her in 1962 (Lucia, SF in LA), Sonnambule (SF 63) and later in 1984 (Anna Bolena, SF) and, although I was only a high schooler in 1962, there was simply no comparison, it was a different voice in 1984 and after a large North Beach meal with wine (back when NB was Italian) I noticed everyone of our party at some time asleep during Anna.

          • Camille

            hummmmm, I can second what lorenzo.venezia has to say as I also saw a ’63 Sonnambula, a ’64 Traviata, and that recently discussed ’84 Anna Bolena, and it was pretty much the same for me, although I had not imbibed vino in North Beach, now a suburb of Shanghai.

            In the intervening years Dame Joan had learned a bit more about how to *command* attention on stage. She was a very grand personage, indeed.amd certainly COULD throw a cape, if not do a can-can.

            All of it, however, left me with very little memory of the opera itself and having just last night come from the cinema repeat showing of Bolena -- where -- OUTRAGE -- sunspots TOOK OUT “Coppia Iniquia”< I have to admit that this opera, notwithstanding its many felicities, is not one of my go-to romantic prima ottocento favourites. Even with all the cuts, it drags. I intend to view the Viennese version, as it may improve my feeling. A major stumbling block for me was Gubanova. A big no in the role, for me.

            Anyway, that's what I heard as well, lorenzo. Still looking, invano, for the citronella wipes.

          • oedipe

            North Beach, now a suburb of Shanghai.

            What ISN’T, these days?

            I intend to view the Viennese version, as it may improve my feeling.

            I encourage you to do so, Camille: “y’a pas photo!”, as they say in Shanghai. Anna + Elina together are something else! The mere two of them are enough justification to revive Bolena.

          • Camille

            Yes, oedipe, I already have heard the great duet with Anna/Elina and was very pleased by it, also the visuals were so much better! I may get the DVD.

            Is there any more word on that Muette de Portici — is it yet sold out? I have got to make up my mind in the coming month as to whether or not I will go. After hearing about Eglise’s Sonnambula, plus the uninspired Spyres performance of last summer in Tell, well, what with the cost — I am thinking about letting this one go. Any advices?

          • oedipe

            Camille,

            No new news about the Muette. I suppose you could always find some last minute tickets if you decide to make the trip and you are not too picky. I guess the Met is not the only house that has the casting blues these days…

          • lorenzo.venezia

            Camille, the one thing that did not change: the chin.

          • MontyNostry

            Have things gone silent on La Muette?

          • manou

            Shtum und dumb, Monty.

          • Camille

            La Muette is not speaking, at all, to anyone.

            And that’s FINAL!

          • manou
  • marshiemarkII

    So whatever happened to Galina Pavolvna’s frowning face? :-) :-) :-)

  • messa di voce

    “in which she seems to command Samson to rock a Jewess to sleep”

    Brava, La Cieca!

  • armerjacquino

    What a tremendously even-handed and scrupulous, detailed review. Brava, cieca.

  • A wonderful review, La Cieca. And a very astute and interesting assessment of La Gherghiu.

  • lorenzo.venezia

    Amen.

  • Camille

    Just to prove that I am an absolute infidel, this performance of “Pleurez, mes yeuxz” is, especially for her voice as it is written for falcon, very successful and gratifying. There is another, later, version on youtube which is greatly diminished in comparison.

    the evidence:

    If she could sing like this often, I would be a very happy camper.

    • Camille

      sorry, “mes yeuX”!!!!

    • operaddict

      OMG….this is what opera is all about. She is just gorgeous in every way.

    • Simply fabulous. Brava diva!

      • mrmyster

        Cieca-San: If I may, could you say a little more about the London “arena” and what kind of venue it is? I get no sense of the ‘room’ or ‘hall’ acoustic from the clip you gave us. The voice is tonally pleasing, as it has nearly always been, but I sense a degree of added reverb, don’t you? Such can warm a voice and give it just a bit of dimension that it does not really offer. On the
        other hand, live and in-person is always better for a voice as we get the overtones and elements of ‘presence’ that are by definition not available
        through electronic means. Care to comment further?

  • zinka

    SHE HAS A GRANDSON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    She is also POTTTTTTED!!!!

    • Donna Carlo

      Although his boobs may be more subdued than hers, her partner’s much prettier and has all the right moves:

      • oedipe

        Well, ya know…

      • MontyNostry

        … and an even smaller voice.

        • Donna Carlo

          I feel that all tastes are to be respected, including those of size queens.

          • oedipe

            C’mon y’all, he is a sweet boy and Mirella’s student, to boot:

  • Completely OT but I don’t care -- just can’t wait for the next Intermission thread --

    Lucy Crowe is simply AWESOME in her new Handel recital on HMF. I mean awesome along the lines of Sutherland’s Let the Bright Seraphim (admittedly with a voice a third of Sutherland’s size, but still). Fabulous breath control, a bit bland but fantastically pure tone and perfect intonation, great legato. I love this girl, now a Konstanze please.

    • and just get the double messa di voce on 1:32

      • manou

        I saw Lucy Crowe as a lovely Sophie in the ROH Rosenkavalier and also in the ill-fated Villazon Haendel concert where her supporting role turned out to be the standout star turn.

        The Vicar will be pleased.

      • grimoaldo

        Yes that is truly glorious CF thank you for posting it! But I cannot say I am anxious for her to sing anything else but Handel, more Handel opera everywhere please!

      • La marquise de Merteuil

        Hi CF,
        Although this is entertaining version, that double messa di voce is too quick to qualify as a properly controlled mdv. Nice effect but not that impressive IMO.

        This is for me a closer idea -- no strgguling with the breaths, no flattening of the tone, no loss of support leading to sustained (high) notes threatening to lose focus / flap either:

        This is a difficult aria -- more difficult than most.

        • MDM are you kidding? I love Minkowski’s complete Resurrezione since I learned to walk, or at least I felt reborn after hearing the Archiv recording. Yes absolutey love the classy Massis here. She is more incisive and more ‘telling’. But by then she was by far the more experienced artist, she is a lot less cleaner than Crowe who sings astonishingly ‘inside’ the note and never approximates pitch for comfort, at least on the HM album, and ultimately, has to deal with a much smaller and consequently infinitely more difficult tempo. So yes I do think that Massis is very fine, exciting and experienced, singing in the French tradition slightly elasticized to permit Baroque sensibility, whereas Crowe is that rare thing -- like Orgonasova -- a completely naturally endowed singing voice, with a more or less (dare I say) perfect technique, breath control, and her own special way of ‘manipulating’ the voice into different repertoire corners. Her Haydn sounds much fuller than her Handel, and even on the Album the sound she makes for Salve Regina is a lot more ‘early baroque’ conscious and instrumentally inclined than this fuller toned Resurrezione aria, where again she uses about 2/3 of the vocal potential. In comparison, Massis is a lot less ‘conscious’ of her vocal choices, sings with more instinct and spontaneity. Crowe is IMO stupendous for very different reasons. Ah and let’s not forget -- Minko’s Handel is mostly a’-392 whereas Bicket uses the standard a’-415, including the da capo alterations which are infinitely higher and more difficult than on the Minko / Massis version.

    • I like this young lady who is apparently going to be in Muhly’s new opera. I heard her sing Konstanze, and it was very impressive. Here she is singing Fiordiligi.

      • Dan

        Wonderful! And my favorite Mozart soprano aria…heaven.

    • SilvestriWoman

      No kidding! As a teenage voice student, I all but wore out Sutherland’s Handel album. Crowe, though, is outstanding. No, the voice isn’t large, but damn if it can’t move… When I first found this, I was astonished by her speed and accuracy, while being completely engaged in the music. A certain Met Handel star could learn volumes, just from studying this clip.

    • Nerva Nelli

      Don’t you find that her Italian is mannered and pretty poor? She was much better- wonderful, iun fact,-- in the Chicago HERCULES.

      • Yes, her Italian is not really imaginative, but there’s plenty of time for that. Ideally I need more colour and variety, but there are so many wonderful qualities here, so I’m enjoying what there’s to enjoy.

        • Hippolyte

          I found Crowe’s Il Caro Sassone CD greatly disappointing--it seems to find her in indifferent voice and the choice of music throughout is rather odd. It doesn’t compare to the times I’ve heard her live: Haydn’s Hanne and Eve with Gardiner and the LAF Fairy Queen, as well as her recordings of Handel’s Trionfo and Minkowski’s Cecilia collection. And she was indeed the highlight of the broadcast of Hercules from Chicago. I don’t hear a Konstanze in her at all--at least not now--her upcoming MET debut as Servilia seems about right.

          • I agree that the HM album is slightly dissappointing esp in regard to what this girl can do, but anyway I appreciate the opportunity to have some recorded evidence, while still fresh, of this extraordinary singer. I envy you for having heard her in Die Schoepfung! And I do hear a Konstanze, albeit in some 5-8 years. Time will tell.

    • Feldmarschallin

      she was great as Sophie here in July.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      It’s difficult to see what the fuss is about, for me. She’s got a pretty little voice with good coloratura facility, and she can be a lovely artist, but I don’t think there is anything remarkable about what she does in this Handel.

      Obviously it’s cleaner than the Handelian efforts of De Niese and Dessay, but Crowe would need at least an ounce of the personality of one of those 2 ladies to be truly remarkable in this repertoire. Sutherland doesn’t come into it- Carolyn Sampson might be a more apt comparison.

      • Krunoslav

        Agreed. Certainly the HM record is not so remarkable. I also thought Crowe was superb as Iole, but fairly ordinary in the BAM performances of “Fairy Queen”.

        Let’s not forget the wonderful Lynne Dawson and Margaret Marshall, both livelier artists with more individual sound AFAIAC.

  • Bart

    Gheorghiu has a much more interesting sound than most sopranos, in my opinion. I have only heard her live in concert (and of course on cds and dvds), and I love her voice. The dark color of it is wonderful. Wish more sopranos had such dark coloring to their voices. I have read many comments about how small her voice is, but I heard her in a concert with Alagna years ago in West Palm Beach and was sitting pretty high up, and I had no problem hearing her. I believe the Kravis center seats over 2,000 people. Not a huge hall by today’s standards probably but I never felt like I had to strain to hear her. She also seems to have a sort of wildness or emotion to the voice that few singers have . So I look forward to buying this on iTunes. In fact, I will go see if it is released yet. The idea of EMI comparing her to Callas is sort of silly. It is a marketing ploy, but it is probably one that works, since it intrigues me to hear how she may or may not measure up in each aria.

  • zinka

    SCARY film….I think Angela might be good in the Eliz.Ashley role in a remake of COMA. (She sounds like Siepi)

    Speaking of “Coma,” Kurt Baum used to crack us up at the end of Trovatore, when,instead of saying (to Zeeenka)”Ahi..COME”..He said,”Ahi COMA.”We always wished he could be in one..and so did Zinka.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Anna Netrebko may not have accepted her mission in life to be a musician, but she is quite delicious here in the Inlamatus!

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      But the pope likes this one:

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        And just think of all the Verdi accompaniments what could not have been written unless Rossini had written that.

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        1911 Edison Cylinder:

        • Quanto Painy Fakor


          Now you sing it:

          • Ha !

          • Clita del Toro

            I like Steber’s the best. I don’t like the way Nebs squawks into the notes at the beginning.

          • I like them all but Steber’s my favourite.

            I also like Caballe and Voigt in this.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      Fabulous top Cs from Anna there! And she really got the attitude behind the trills right (how could we possibly let an ascending sequence of trills pass unremarked?).

  • Andrew Powell

    Excellent piece, La C!