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Homage to Maria Callas
Favourite Opera Arias
See end of review for track listing
Angela Gheorghiu (soprano)
with James Valenti* (tenor)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Marco Armiliato
rec. April, August 2010, January 2011, Studio No.1, Abbey Road, London; May 2010, Henry Wood Hall, London; February 2011 MSR Studios, New York.
EMI CLASSICS 6315092 [60:40]

Experience Classicsonline


It no doubt seems like a good - if slightly desperate - commercial sales ploy to try to boost sales by linking the names of Angela Gheorghiu and Maria Callas. The blurb on the back-cover of this disc asserts that our "Angela" is "the defining diva of this century”, whereas I would concede her a more modest, yet still considerable, status as one of at least three great sopranos active today. Meanwhile, few would contest that Callas was indisputably supreme amongst post-war twentieth century singers and many would anoint her “Greatest Soprano Ever”. Thus nervous EMI marketing executives have sought to circumvent the vicissitudes of early twenty-first century economics by banking on the certainties of an era when classical music was a more profitable enterprise, while simultaneously hoping that no-one will seize the opportunity of making invidious comparisons between their current star and her idol. 

Renée Fleming got away with it in her 2006 Decca recital disc “Homage” by using more of a buckshot approach and posing fetchingly in flapper costumes vaguely reminiscent of early twentieth century divas such as Rosa Ponselle, Maria Jeritza, Mary Garden but she didn’t necessarily invite the same direct comparisons which Gheorghiu essentially demands when she deliberately poses and dresses in a manner which replicates certain, now iconic, Callas photographs.
 
Similarly, Juan Diego Flórez offered us “Arias for Rubini”, also recorded in 2006 for Decca; clearly their marketing department had hit on a good wheeze that year and weren’t afraid to exploit it. He ran in to some trouble when more knowledgeable commentators pointed out that some of the arias he selected were only very tangentially or fleetingly associated with the great Giovanni Battista Rubini, “king of tenors” long before Pavarotti or even Caruso were thus crowned, but Flórez had the inestimable advantage of there being no recordings of his inspiration - so no substantive rivalry there, then.
 
Besides all that, both Fleming and Flórez sang with such jaw-dropping virtuosity and vocal splendour that most carpers found themselves disarmed and merely grateful that the “homage” ploy provided the excuse to hear some exquisite singing of decidedly less hackneyed and even unfamiliar repertoire.
 
The strategy here employed by Gheorghiu and EMI (R.I.P) is, however, riskier for a number of reasons. There is paradox at work which could militate against the success of her disc and I can illustrate it perfectly: I am typical of a large section of the market, belonging to an aging generation very familiar with Callas’s art and hence, while superficially allured by the mention of her name, I began listening to the recital either consciously or subconsciously inclined to make comparisons very much to the reigning diva’s detriment. Hence, on first listening, I was positively unhappy with what I heard; I had Callas’s inimitable tone, manner and timbre in my head and Gheorghiu simply could not replicate or indeed rival Callas. Nor, indeed, should or could she - but then, it wasn’t my idea that she should do so, was it! On a second hearing, I found myself far more inclined both to give Gheorghiu credit for the beauty and sincerity of her singing - and it is this which I hope will appeal to younger buyers less familiar with the Callas legacy. Yet a third encounter with this disc brought a more balanced, considered and conclusive response: there is much great singing here, yet in too many regards Gheorghiu’s artistry cannot rival that of Callas, who was the supreme exponent of the art of investing notes and words with such emotion that they impose themselves indelibly on the listener’s heart. Callas groupies are notoriously unforgiving and spiteful in their blind adoration of their goddess, yet they have no reason to complain: Gheorghiu has deliberately chosen to acknowledge Callas’s virtually unassailable supremacy as a singing actress by inviting comparisons. She is thus either very modest, very arrogant or naively allowing herself to be manipulated and I shall say no more about that. She is very good but she’s no Callas, so in some regards such a project may be seen as having been a suicide mission right from the start.
 
There is also the issue which came back to bite - well; at least nip - Flórez: although Gheorghiu has selected arias of which Callas made famous, classic recordings, many are roles that Callas rarely sang and as such cannot be said to have been instrumental in her rise to fame. For instance, although Violetta was central to Callas’s career and she starred in important revivals of both Medea and Imogen, she never sang Carmen, Wally, Nedda, Adriana, Mimì or Dalila on stage - and she never approved the release of the latter’s “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix”. The arias for Mimì, Chimène and Wally she performed only in concert in the latter years of her active career; Maddalena she sang in only one six-performance run at La Scala in 1955. Marguerite’s “Jewel Song” she sang in her early years in Greece and subsequently recorded but it was otherwise irrelevant to her reputation.
 
So such a selection is hardly representative of Callas or especially apt as a tribute, even granting the advisability of such an enterprise. A more faithful reflection of Callas’s career highs would include more Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and the great middle-period Verdi roles, but singing more of that repertoire would compromise Gheorghiu’s current vocal strengths; it is evident her weakest performances here are when she strays from what are now clearly her comfort zones of verismo and late ottocento back into the bel canto and bravura Fach exhibited in her 2000/2001 recital record “Casta diva”, which no longer suits her. “Col sorriso” is by far the least satisfying aria here; Gheorghiu labours to produce a rich, seamless line, the fioriture are effortful and the emotion ends up sounding applied and self-conscious because we are listening to her struggling to keep her technique on the rails, whereas Callas lives and breathes a woman on the edge of sanity, conveying her mental suffering and fragility in long-breathed phrases of melting pathos.
 
In a sense therefore, Gheorghiu is to be commended for by and large adhering to the arias which she loves and which now suit her voice - the one obviously being a function of the other. Her excursions into verismo are superb: for me the jewel of this collection is “Ebben? ne andró lontana”, closely followed by “Poveri fiori” and “Pleurez, mes yeux!”. Although Gheorghiu’s lower register doesn’t have Callas’s trenchancy, she has worked on acquiring more resonance there without sacrificing the slightly tremulous, vibrant, gossamer of her upper voice.
 
I have delayed discussion of the other “gimmick” on this CD: the “virtual duet” with Callas in the “Habañera” from Bizet’s “Carmen”. It was digitally engineered and as such remains at best a mere curiosity and at worst a vanity project of questionable artistic value. It seems that EMI thought better of its inclusion on the disc, wisely opting instead to have us access it on their website via the CD-ROM drive and instead offer us the original sung here by Gheorghiu as it should with a sensuous, flickering allure and ample evidence of the development of her lower register.
 
While I derived much pleasure from this disc and at times found Gheorghiu’s voice and delivery remarkably similar to Callas’s, I could not shake off that little voice which whispered how much more intense and affecting the latter was as Medea or Maddalena, for all Gheorghiu’s intensity and commitment. I’m not sure we needed another proof of her vocal facility and gift for pathos as the best Violetta of our age and I was somewhat disappointed by James Valenti’s brief but rather hoarse contributions as Alfredo. That said, if you can get Callas out of your head there is so much to enjoy here from a singer of stellar quality who has looked after and developed her voice in a career which is already well over twenty years old. She now finds herself very much in her prime in her mid-forties with no signs of vocal deterioration.  

Marco Armiliato
’s direction of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is superb; the playing is flawless and his understanding of the idiom appropriate to each aria wholly assured. It is so good that one forgets to listen to it, if you see what I mean - and I mean that not as an indication of blandness but as a sign of how apt is his control over the surge and flow of each piece. The sound is excellent although, depending on which equipment I used, Gheorghiu's voice could sometimes sound just a little recessed compared with the late 1950s EMI recordings of Callas that I used for purposes of comparison.
 
The CD packaging - I assume mine is the "de luxe edition" - is in a very attractive white and beige booklet format, the disc itself in a slipcase pasted inside the front cover. We are given many gorgeous photographs of both divas at their most elegant and alluring, and texts and notes translated into three languages - a sumptuous and very tasteful production. 

Ralph Moore 

 
Track List
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 - 1924)
La bohème
1. Donde lieta usci [3:13]
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust
2. Ah! Je ris de me voir [4:53]
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 - 1835)
Il pirata
3. Col sorriso d'innocenza [4:03]
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)
I Pagliacci
4. Qual fiamma avea nel guardo!...Hui! Stridono lassù [4:51]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Samson et Dalila
5. Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix [5:39]
Alfredo CATALANI (1854-1893)  
La Wally
6. Ebben? Ne andrò lontana [3:41]
Georges BIZET (1838-1870)
Carmen
7. L'amour est un oiseau rebelle - 'Habañera' [4:11]
Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Andrea Chénier
8. La mamma morta [5:12]
Luigi CHERUBINI (1760-1842)
Medea
9. Dei tuoi figli la madre tu vedi [4:43]
Jules MASSENET (1842 - 1912)
Le Cid
10. De cet affreux combat…Pleurez, mes yeux! [5:37]
Francesco CILEA (1866 - 1950)
Adriana Lecouvreur
11. Poveri fiori [3:32]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901)
La traviata
12. È strano! è strano!...Ah! fors’è lui [6:26]
13. Sempre libera* [4:35] 

 


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