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La Mer Ticciati
Cantatas for Soprano
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Angela Gheorghiu (soprano)
Joseph Calleja (tenor)*
Richard Novak (bass)‡
PKF - Prague Philharmonia / Emmanuel Villaume
Libretto provided in the notes
rec. 2016/17, Smetana Hall, Municipal House, Prague; Temple Studios, Malta. WARNER CLASSICS 9029578024 [60:00]
Time, age and the demands of a jet-setting international career singing in large opera houses can be hard on the greatest voices with the securest of techniques. Angela Gheorghiu had only just turned 51 when she recorded the contents of this, her first studio album for six years since Homage to Maria Callas but the wear in her tone since is all too plain to hear. When I
Autograph, the 9 disc bargain box set issued in April 2015 as a tribute to Gheorghiu in her fiftieth year and to mark the twenty-five year anniversary of her debut, I remarked: “My personal preference is to hear Gheorghiu in higher, lighter, more brilliant roles such as Gounod’s Juliette or the classic bel canto operas where crystalline tone and purity of line prevail”, so while I can understand her migrating towards roles which call less upon a silvery top and acknowledge some increased heft of lower register as her voice matures, I do not think the move towards a lower tessitura a wise one, as the heaviest items here constitute the greatest weakness in this recital, while the lightest numbers are still charming.
Focusing upon Italian verismo composers thus represents quite a change of direction. I remarked in my previous review that “I do not mean to say that she is unsuccessful in heavier roles but some, such as Carmen and Werther, lack the mezzo-ish tint which gives them extra depth”; now we must add an element of forcing and exaggeration, in combination with a loosening of the vibrato and some intonation issues which probably proceed from that forcing in the lower reaches, and the results are worrying. There was a reason why Gheorghiu had not previously sung such roles. There is no doubting her passion and commitment, but the voice simply cannot cope with or rise to the demands of the roles without sounding over-parted. Gheorghiu has always been a subtle artist, prepared to sing softly, making her move towards the more blatant, can belto approach all the more puzzling.
The fact that their schedules obliged Calleja to record his contribution four months later than Gheorghiu in a different location, serves only to underline my opening observation regarding the challenges posed to the modern opera singer and may go some way to explaining why you might detect some lack of connection between the two singers in their joint tracks.
It is a pity that the opening three tracks from Cavalleria rusticana are the weakest in the whole album. The obtrusive pulse, quaveriness and hollowness in the middle of Gheorghiu’s tone make her sound positively elderly and the slack orchestral accompaniment does nothing to help. I am puzzled why the producers went to the expense of employing the Prague Philharmonic Choir, but a soprano could not be found to sing Lola’s offstage intervention, which is given to a flute. Calleja’s tenor is too light, tight and bleaty to make him sound like a verismo tenor and probably for the technical reasons I cite above, he sounds both acoustically and emotionally distant and disengaged.
It is therefore a relief to turn to the Donaudy song: a piece of fluff perhaps but the kind of thing Gheorghiu has always excelled in and long thought good enough for the greatest sopranos to tackle by virtue of its gorgeous melody and floating line. Claudia Muzio sang it and Gheorghiu replicates much of her charm – yet even here an unsteadiness makes her account a lesser thing than Muzio’s perfect rendering. Something of Muzio emerges in another shared favourite song, “Ombra di Nube”, but again, comparisons between the two singers are not in Gheorghiu’s favour.
“Vissi d’arte” should be a show-stopper but thin top notes and a laboured line undermine it. The Boito duet evinces the same intonational and disengagement issues and the brief contributions from the distinguished but now very elderly Slovak bass Richard Novak are embarrassing. Embarrassing, too, is Gheorghiu’s onslaught upon “Suicidio”, with hollow tone, comically distorted vowels and a forced lower register, whereby she tries to inject darkness and depth into her fundamentally light soprano, render the whole enterprise otiose. The over-emphasis on “cammin” and “fra le tenebre” is absurd. Furthermore, the orchestral accompaniment is again leaden and lacking rhythmic pointedness, like much of Gheorghiu’s droopy, laboured singing here.
The album title number and Leoncavallo rarity arias pass by pleasantly but unmemorably; much better is the aria from Siberia with its strophic charm and gentle conclusion. Appropriating the extra aria Puccini wrote for the tenor in La rondine seems gimmicky and redundant when there is plenty of authentic soprano material, but by this stage I am in any case losing interest. For what it’s worth, it is one of the best sung items on the album; Gheorghiu recovers here much of her former steadiness and sweetness, spinning the long melodic line most attractively.
Despite the basic inappropriateness of his tone to the music, Calleja makes more of his contribution to the Andrea Chénier duet and finally we hear both artists generating some tension and excitement, despite the essential incompatibility of their voices. However, having just listened to several classic recordings of this, the ultimate verismo belter, featuring such pairings as Corelli and Stella, Gigli and Caniglia, Del Monaco and Tebaldi, and Domingo and Scotto, I cannot in all honesty claim this one rivals those.
In brief, this is one of those recital albums I would have preferred not to have reviewed and shall return gratefully to the Gheorghiu of the not-so-distant past to hear her as she should be remembered – for a long time, if not “eternamente”.