2016 has so far offered some very unusual treats to the often starved opera lovers in Ireland. In January there was the return, after twelve years, of the iconic Placido Domingo, who sang to a full house at the 3 Arena in Dublin on the eve of his 75th birthday (yes, you’ve read that right and, yes, he still had a remarkable voice although now mostly singing as a baritone rather than a tenor); while on the 12th of March famous Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu sang in an Opera Gala concert at the National Concert Hall.
With a singer of this fame and calibre, expectations were high and the epithet of ‘diva’, shared with Maria Callas and given to her for a combination of whimsicality, beauty and talent, did not help lower them. Her entrance alone would let you understand how she has commanded the stage in theatres all over the world: she is tall, with long dark hair and an hourglass figure, which was covered for the night firstly in a rich and sparkly black gown, then in a vibrant yellow Greek-goddess-like dress.
Given the anticipation, although this would have gone against the customary building of a climax in the program, you would have hoped for a more exciting (for the audience) and challenging (for the singer) aria than ‘Io son l’umile ancella’ from ‘Adriana Lecouvreur’ to open the concert. Of course the ‘Habanera’ from Carmen was highly anticipated. As like for the rest of the pieces in the performance, this was impeccably executed, revealing the soprano’s strengths to lie in effortlessly reaching the top notes and in her vocal agility in creating nuances. This last quality was particularly appreciated in the aria ‘L’altra notte” (“Mefistofele”), where, perhaps, Gheorghiu also delivered the most convincing and moving interpretation of the evening portraying the madness of Margherita, with the twists and turns in her voice perfectly matching those of the character’s disturbed mind. More of her acting could be observed in the duet of Mario and Tosca (“Mario, Mario, Mario! Son qui…”). The duet was overall very enjoyable, although the audience may have spotted one or two overly acted passages: while singing ‘Ma falle gli occhi neri’ (‘But paint her eyes black!’), she emphatically pointed to her own eyes, as if to mimic the translation for the mainly non Italian speaking audience (or for those who did not know ‘Tosca’?…); unnecessary and interfering with the credibility of the character, if we maintain that ‘interpretation’ in opera should not refer as much to physical movement on the stage and facial expression as much as to the ability of the voice itself to convey the relevant emotion.
For those who believe that the best opera performances can be judged by the alchemical combination of goosebumps and tears they are able to generate, Gheorghiu’s concert overall gave quite a few of the first but less of the second; but of course, it may be that the trick cannot always be done in a concert as the entire breadth and context of an opera is missing.
A very good choice was the accompanying tenor, Calin Bratescu who, with a beautifully incisive timbre and quite powerful tone, far from being a merely supportive presence, often managed to steal the scene as in interesting counterpoint. The bijou RTE Concert Orchestra, under visiting conductor Tiberiu Soare, was brilliant as usual.
A few encores followed the program: ‘O mio babbino caro’, “one of the most beautiful arias for soprano” in the words of Angela Gheorghiu who announced the piece; the Italian song for tenor ‘Non ti scordar di me’; ‘Ombra di nube’ and, finally, ‘Granada’, unusually here sung in a duet which really did not do justice to the soprano’s voice, which was almost completely covered by the orchestra and by the tenor voice.
It has to be said that, unlike many ‘Opera Gala’ concerts, one merit of the program was to stick to a purely operatic repertoire (if we exclude the encores), without falling in the trap of necessarily trying to please the local audience: with all due respect for musicals, operettas and popular songs, if you have the luxury of a good opera singer in front of you, you want to hear her sing opera.
In conclusion, if the juxtaposition of any soprano with Maria Callas would look meaningless to at least anybody who has learned to love opera on the recordings of la Divina, Angela Gheorghiu is a talented artist of clearly consummated experience, definitely worth listening to live if you have the chance.