Angela Gheorghiu almost lives up to the hype. At a time when many of opera’s reigning stars are relentlessly overpraised by the public relations machine, Gheorghiu represents the genuine article: a bona-fide diva with an unforgettable voice.
In recent years, the temperamental Romanian soprano has made news more for her high-profile cancellations and tempestuous personal life than for her singing. In concert with the Washington National Opera on Saturday night, Gheorghiu returned our attention to her artistry, offering a familiar selection of arias ranging from Handel to Puccini. Despite the undeniable glories of her voice, the evening, which sometimes had the feel of a “greatest hits” album played one too many times, achieved only mixed success.
Looking resplendent modeling three evening gowns, Gheorghiu put her vocal riches on display: a dark yet lustrous tone, effortless portamento, a gorgeously floated pianissimo, an instinctive musicality, and elegant expressivity. Yet she also exhibited her limitations as an artist. Her diction often lacked clarity, and her top notes, while secure, were not quite effortless. Dramatic characterizations were often incompletely realized. Diva mannerisms, like willful tempi and self-conscious poses (as well as a last-minute program change), also got in the way of the music making.
Gheorghiu’s opening two arias were the least successful. Relying on sheet music, she lost her way in Handel’s “Ombra mai fu,” with conductor Eugene Kohn struggling to keep soprano and orchestra together. Mozart’s “Deh vieni, non tardar” while sweetly sung, called for a lighter, lesser fussy approach and clearer enunciation. The unidiomatic singing in both arias did not show her off to great advantage.
Gheorghiu clearly is a singer much more at home in the 19th century repertory with which she has long been identified. Dvořák’s “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka, sung with romantic urgency, ached with longing. In the recitative preceding Manon’s “Adieu,” Gheorghiu rushed ahead of the orchestra, obliterating the phrase-by-phrase shifts in the drama. Yet she settled in to sing the main aria, an acute psychological portrayal of conflictedness and longing, with great sensitivity and tristesse.
With her seamless legato and darkly beautiful timbre, Gheorghiu captured the personal anguish and dramatic intensity of “Pleurez mes yeux,” Chimène’s monologue from Massenet’s Le Cid. Yet Gheorghiu opted for the aria’s higher, alternate ending, which she delivered with clenched fists and without the concluding diminuendo, conveying more outward suffering and defiance than inward resignation. Vocal effect took precedence over dramatic fidelity.
Gheorghiu was at her best when she let go of her oppressive sense of calculation. Spontini’s “O nume tutelar,” delivered with exemplary simplicity, showed off the soprano’s breathtaking way with phrasing and ravishing mezza voce in a dramatically convincing number. And in the aria from La Wally, Gheorghiu sang with thrilling abandon and directness – her most expressive and freely delivered performance of the night.
Accompanying the soprano with obsequiousness, conductor Kohn strove mightily, if not always successfully, to keep up. He also led the Washington National Opera Orchestra in a handful of sloppily played and seemingly superfluous program fillers.
Gheorghiu may be the real deal and not merely a media creation, but nearly two decades after being propelled to international stardom by her triumph as Violetta at Covent Garden, there still remains a sense of incompleteness to her artistic development and of limitation in her repertory. Undeniably talented, she is still not yet the singer the world has been waiting for.
Feature Picture: Angela Gheorghu by Cosmin Gogu.
Angela Gheorghiu performed one night only, March 3, 2012, with the Washington National Opera Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.
Angela Gheorghiu’s website.
Watch and listen to Angela Gheorghiu in concert.
Washington National Opera’s website.
WNO’s 2012-2013 season.