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Puccini Gala Concert Angela Gheorghiu (soprano); Philharmonia Orchestra/Ion Marin, Royal Festival Hall, 10 May, 2005 (CC)

Angela Gheorghiu evidently has a large and avid following, judging by this sold-out event. But then again, so does Renée Fleming and there are big differences. Whatever caveats I may voice below, Gheorghiu is a genuine artist and a real singer. She shows real affinity for her chosen music (in this case almost exclusively Puccini) and, while possessing a beautiful voice, she uses it to express what is in the music. Much more sensible!

The Philharmonia had a fair amount to do. A suspicious amount, some might say. Berlioz’ Roman Carnival Overture kicked things off, its exciting beginning suiting a virtuoso orchestra. A fast cor anglais melody (from Benvenuto Cellini) told us Marin was keen to get on and get his Romanian compatriot to the stage. Which was pretty much what most of the audience were probably thinking anyway.

Gheorghiu entered for two arias (Edgar and Gianni Schicchi) before leaving the orchestra centre stage once more. The Edgar (‘Nel villaggio’) revealed a singer with a gorgeous voice, who can float a note beautifully and who is supremely even over all registers. It also proved that Gheorghiu’s is not a voice that cuts through orchestras, and if she was pacing herself, she over-compensated rather on occasion. ‘O mio babbino caro’ (the Schicchi aria, and one shared with Fleming’s similar-style concert) was a real siciliano and, even more importantly, a real no narcissism zone. Gheorghiu had the ability to make one believe her emotions and to actually enter into the opera’s scenario at this point. No small achievement under the circumstances. But no sooner had she warmed up than another Overture arrived – Nabucco. The performance was actually much better than the Berlioz had been. Trombones were creamy and there was even drama here, not to mention a rhythmic swing that almost made this an Italian New Year’s Day concert.

Two more arias before the interval. And proof positive that early Verdi to Puccini is a long way to go. ‘Donde lieta uscì’ (Bohème) had Gheorghiu exhibiting supreme control (particularly at the end, the memorable line ‘Addio, senza rancor’) although it was more difficult here to believe the sadness of the scenario. ‘In quelle tride morbide’ (Manon Lescaut) saw Gheorghiu back on form, but then it was time for her to go again …

And for us, too, for a while, for it was the interval. And if you felt short-changed by that, bear in mind that the post-interval ‘Overture’ was nothing other than Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture (all twenty-two minutes of it!). The difficult to tune woodwind chords of the opening spoke of depleted rehearsal; and if the famous love-theme was expressively moulded, it seemed out of place because there was no tension underlying it. As a run-through this was fine, but as a performance it was a non-starter.

Gheorghiu used music (!) for Puccini’s Salve Regina, a quasi-pious work that, actually, she sang heavenly (no pun intended). Gheorghiu’s dolente approach to ‘Tu che di gel sei cinta ‘ (Turandot Act III, Liù) worked towards a powerful end. We actually got three in a row here, with a magnificently controlled ‘Un bel dì’ (Butterfly) in which Gheorghiu exhibited magnificent breath control. Particularly noteworthy was the way the inverted commas of Butterfly imagining the words ‘Piccina – mogliettina Olezzo di verbena’ came across.

The orchestra seemed at last to grasp its chance to shine in the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana before the final two items, ‘Che il bel sogno’ (Rondine) and ‘Vissa d’arte’ (Tosca). The Rondine excerpt worked well towards Tosca’s Act II aria. Here in Tosca Gheorghiu seemed at the height of her powers. The perfect attack of the first note (no trace of a scoop up there) led into an account wherein Gheorghiu caressed the line, rising naturally to a climax.

There were, of course, encores and a standing ovation. Again, Gheorghiu used music for one item (Granada!). But in the end she did triumph in a way that completely eluded la Fleming.

Colin Clarke

Further Listening:

Puccini Arias Gheorghiu; Orchestra Sinfonico di Milano Giuseppe Verdi/Coppola. EMI 5 579550

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