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International Voices 2009/10 Angela Gheorghiu in Concert: Angela Gheorghiu (soprano), Marius Manea (tenor), Philharmonia Orchestra, Ion Marin (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 10.11.2009 (MMB)

Bernstein: Overture from Candide

Verdi: Parigi, o cara from La Traviata; Quando le sere al placido chiaror d’un cil stellato from Luisa Miller; Overture from La forza del destino; Morrò, ma prima in grazia from Un ballo in maschera

Massenet: Pleurez, pleurez mes yeux from Le Cid

Gounod: Salut! demeure chaste et pure, from Faust

Bizet: Intermezzo and Farandole from L’arlésiene Suite No. 2

Donizetti: Caro elisir from L’elisir d’amore

Mascagni: Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana; Cherry Duet from L’amico Fritz

Puccini: O soave fanciulla from La bohème

The International Voices series at the Southbank Centre has brought us a wide range of singing stars with different degrees of fame: from a soprano like Renée Fleming to counter-tenors such as David Daniels and Philippe Jaroussky. In principle, this concert, on Saturday, 10th November, should have been the one to top them all, as it featured Romanian super star soprano, Angela Gheorghiu, a real diva in every sense of the word. I was expecting to be in for a treat but I must say that the evening was a bit of a disappointment.

To begin with, reading the programme I was rather surprised to realise that the concert did not appear to be a true “evening with Gheorghiu”. The great prima donna was actually only listed to sing two arias alone; with the rest of programme being split equally with a little known tenor by the name of Marius Manea. Then, the concert opened with Bernstein’s Overture to Candide, a somehow strange choice amidst a programme of operatic music from 19th century composers. The Philharmonia Orchestra, led by Romanian born and now Austrian, conductor Ion Marin, delivered a solid and charming performance but I felt throughout that the piece did not belong there.

It is commendable that a star such as Angela Gheorghiu  tries to  promote her fellow Romanians, which I assume is why she chose to share the stage with tenor Marius Manea. However, for a concert marketed solely under her name and star status, I felt that it was not quite right to give Manea an equal share. I would have expected Ms Gheorghiu to sing the majority of the programme; then perhaps have a duet with Manea and allow him one aria, as a form of introducing a young singer who is little known outside of his own country.

Marius Manea is not a star tenor yet and his singing needs polishing, though he did well enough on the night. His voice is pleasant; at times, warm and dramatically expressive. In the duets with Gheorghiu, in spite of his obvious awkwardness in acting the lover, there were moments where he sang with a solid quality, especially, as Nemorino in the duet Caro elisir from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. However, his phrasing is not very refined and his legato needs improvement, a fact made obvious in his rendition of Gounod’s Salut! demeure chaste et pure from Faust, which did not quite work, lacking elegance and style. I thought he was better in Verdi’s Quando le sere... from Luisa Miller, though his top note was achieved with a little too much effort.

Having said all this, let me get to the point and describe how  the lady who everyone came to see was! Ms Gheorghiu is an excellent actress and can easily slip into character, making each performance believable but, even so, she did not quite deliver: perhaps she was still unwell and not fully recovered from the bad attack of influenza, which forced her to postpone the concert from its original date in October. But right from the beginning, in the duet Parigi, o cara from Verdi’s La traviata, she was not quite there. She appeared unprepared, fidgety and lacking concentration. Her voice has of course an exotic, darkish ring to it with a sensual undertone and rousing, beautiful high notes but her Massenet sounded too much of an effort and her Verdi aria from Un ballo in maschera while technically extremely well sung, lacked emotional impact.

She was more the real Angela, the one we have come to know and love, in the Donizetti duet and most of all in Puccini's O soave fanciulla from La bohème. However, her performance in the charming Cherry duet from Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz was a bit embarrassing to put it mildly. Suddenly, Ms Gheorghiu drew a complete blank and had to turn to the conductor and his score for help. Manea paused, the orchestra stopped, the audience gasped and she apologised, while reading the score and exchanging a couple of words with Ion Marin. After this incident, she resumed from where she had left off and her performance actually improved greatly. She handled it  all graciously, managing to get away unscathed from what would normally be a failure and the public gave her a rather generous round of applause. To her adoring fans, it appears that she can do no wrong and they seem to forgive her anything.

Actually, the thing that I found most amazing in this concert was Angela Gheorghiu’s showmanship and how she can play up to an audience, perfectly fitting the part of the great diva. From the way she smiles through to the gowns she wears, every detail is made to impress: she wore three different dresses, all exuberant, but not perhaps always stylish though enhancing her exotic, glamorous looks. She has an outgoing personality, is charming and gracious towards the audience and she knows how to captivate them. In the end, she managed to turn an average concert into a hugely successful one and received a genuinely warm standing ovation. She gave four encores, two of which were well established duets: the first from Puccini’s La rondine and the second, possibly the most famous in all the operatic repertoire, the  Brindisi from Verdi’s La traviata; where even conductor Marin sang a few notes! The remaining encores were the almost obligatory O mio babbino caro, which she sang rather attractively and the somewhat bizarre (and probably misguided) choice of Agustín Lara’s Granada, usually a show piece for tenors.

The Philharmonia did their job very well and Ion Marin proved his qualities as a conductor, though neither he nor the musicians were ever stretched in the pieces performed only by the orchestra: all extremely popular and heard many times before but well judged and delivered with gusto.

Overall, this was still an enjoyable evening; however, to my mind, for a singer of Angela Gheorghiu’s stature it would have been more rewarding if the emphasis had been put more on the actual singing rather than on the show

Margarida Mota-Bull


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