January 26, 2017

The Angela Gheorghiu experience: a new boxed set for opera lovers

25 years since her debut at Covent Garden and the Romanian diva is still at the top of her game.

“An instant blaze of vitality, talent and beauty — like lightning!”
This was opera, film and television director Franco Zeffirelli’s response when, in 2007, a television director and producer asked him “When I say Angela Gheorghiu, what’s the first thing you think of?”

It was 15 years earlier (in 1992) when Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu’s lightning first struck at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, effectively launching her spectacular international career overnight. Not long after she had sung a single performance of Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Angela performed a role on a now historic first night of a revival in June, the same role she had sung in her very first professional operatic appearance almost exactly two years earlier at the Romanian National Opera in Cluj: Mimì in Puccini’s La Bohème.

It was the culmination of many years of intensive study, along with personal guidance from soprano Mia Barbu, a special artist who had recognised Angela’s exceptional talent when the young singer was still in her early teens. “From the start she taught me all about breathing and breath-control, which is crucial as the basis for all opera singing”, Angela recalls. “I began to understand what the voice is really all about, and how to approach the art of singing.”

And it is precisely Angela Gheorghiu’s remarkable breath-control that is one of the factors behind the spellbinding atmosphere she creates when she ethereally floats an entrance such as “Ecco: respiro appena …” (Look, I am hardly breathing), just before the beginning of her aria “Io son l’umile ancella del Genio creator …” (I am the humble servant of the creative genius) in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur. Investing just a few sung words with such rapt yet perfectly controlled colour is one of her most striking qualities.

Another extraordinary example can be heard in the single note of farewell that concludes her Warner Classics recording of Puccini’s La rondine, when the sensual timbre and poignant expression of her “Ah” as it melts away impeccably to almost nothing makes Ruggero’s loss of his beloved Magda all the more heart-breaking. That one “Ah” is not simply the sound of
someone disappearing into the distance; it is the wistful goodbye of a woman who, like the eponymous swallow, must return to her nest, but not without sadness.

With Angela Gheorghiu, every note and every word has a dramatic and
emotional meaning — the composer’s.

The new Warner Classics Complete Recitals 7CD box set, celebrating the 25th anniversary of Angela Gheorghiu’s debut at Covent Garden, illustrates the intensity and depth of her dramatic characterisation in many of the very different roles in her wideranging repertoire. They include widely varied personae written in markedly dissimilar musical styles, and in Angela Gheorghiu’s hands they sound strikingly disparate. The degree to which she diversifies the sonorities and colours in her voice — something she also does to a great extent even in the course of portraying a single role — is a key factor in the vivid depictions of character she brings to her performances, and the versatility of her stylistic mastery is showcased in a particularly impressive way in the recital Homage to Maria Callas.

Also in this set we have the spontaneous frisson of Angela Gheorghiu’s debut recital at La Scala, Milan, with a palpably charged interaction between artist and audience. This recital is a telling example of Angela’s mastery of still more, varied styles heard in quick succession: Baroque
arie antiche, Verdi songs, French mélodies and chansons, and Romanian songs, plus a few more in other genres as well. Of the Baroque songs she says: “With these songs you need to create a simpler feeling without as much vibrato, not quite so ‘involved’ as one is with later music, although it is an elusive matter, because the words and music are so wonderful. I always look for the connections between the words and the music in everything I sing, but one has to be careful not to emphasise the words too much in this style of music, not to be too ‘interpreting’. It is as though the colour of the voice has to give an impression of being more detached, not so overtly emotional, and yet as I say it is very critical, as there is such beautiful feeling! I can’t force myself not to understand and express the feelings of the words — and so performing this music is like a balancing act.”

Whether in opera or song, it is the transmission of this meticulous attention to style, detail and character through one of the most flexible, supple and brilliantly agile of all voices, with its instantly recognisable expressiveness and personality, that has given the world the Angela Gheorghiu experience. In the 25 years since her international debut, the ardent vibrancy, dazzling virtuosity and emotional power of that experience has been captivating music-lovers and more. Sir Antonio
Pappano has commented how the special allure and vivid presence of her voice has affected orchestras to the extent that they play differently when she sings. Indeed the various orchestras that accompany her on this anniversary box set have all absorbed some of her vocal finesse and rich expressivity into their performances — as no doubt orchestras will continue to do in the future, as they accompany her when that “instant blaze of vitality, talent and beauty” strikes “like lightning”, in new roles, new songs and new challenges.

Read the full Jon Tolansky essay in the box set Angela Gheorghiu: The Complete Warner Classics Recitals