Opera House, London Tim Ashley
Tuesday September 19, 2006
David McVicar's production of Faust relocates Gounod's take on Goethe's great
drama to Paris in the years before the Franco-Prussian war. It's a provocative, disturbing piece of music theatre that probes
beneath the surface of a work once hugely popular, though now, more often than not, condemned as prurient.
Gounod was nicknamed "the erotic priest" in his lifetime: eliding him with Faust and transposing the
opera to the time and place of composition allows McVicar to explore the idea of demonic possession as a metaphor both for
the undermining of artistic integrity and for the implosion of a society torn between the antithetical values of hedonism
and sanctimony. The drama plays itself out in a no-man's-land between the ritzy profanity of a backstage dressing room and
the chilly sanctity of a church, facing each other on opposite sides of Charles Edwards's set. Mephistopheles, like some malign
theatrical manager, engineers in turn Faust's descent into druggy sensuality, Marguerite's collapse into insanity and the
tatty parades that accompany the departure and return of soldiers to and from the front. What begins as a kind of witty, postmodern
game, as McVicar brings in allusions to Gounod's contemporaries Baudelaire, Zola and Manet, tips by the end into something
genuinely hellish and malign.
Strong stuff, it's phenomenally well performed, though Orlin Anastassov's Mephistopheles takes a while
to settle and is more plausible as a sexual predator than a dangerous demagogue. Angela Gheorghiu has done nothing finer than
Marguerite and is horribly convincing in the agonised final scenes. Her Faust, Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, is virile and elegant,
seducing us as well as her with some perfectly taken top Cs, and there's a tremendous debut from Canadian baritone Russell
Braun as Valentin - a glorious performance in terms of vocal beauty and expressive intensity.
The whole piece is superbly conducted by Mario Benini, too.
Worthwhile, if a little weathered ... Angela Gheorgiu (Mimi) and Tito Beltran (Rodolfo)
in La Boheme. Photograph: Tristram Kenton
of Puccini's classic, originally directed by John Copley, began life in 1974 and is now the oldest in the Royal Opera's repertory.
It's still serviceable in its old-fashioned way, at least when lit with sufficient discretion to hide its increasing shabbiness.
There are some worthwhile performances, and at least one star vocal turn. Angela Gheorghiu
never sounds better than when singing Puccini, and her Mimi is founded on long, perfectly shaped lines and an extraordinary
range of vocal colour. Vulnerability is not her strong suit, and it takes a while for her to engage with the character emotionally.
But she dies beautifully, and her curtain call is something of a classic.
· Until July 2. Box office: 020 7304 4000.
John Copley’s 1974 production for the Royal Opera is also a classic, with beautiful designs by
the late Dr Julia Trevelyan Oman, to whom the current revival is dedicated. The sets are sumptuously detailed, matching Puccini’s
evocation of the bohemian life with seeming perfection, and it’s always a pleasure to revisit them. With Mark Elder
working his usual magic in the pit, and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in sparkling form, this Bohème worked
up to a near-ideal performance of the third and fourth acts, after an admittedly shaky start in the opening scene.
It all came to life with the appearance onstage of Angela Gheorghiu in the role of Mimì. Gheorghiu
is always reason enough to attend any performance, but she brings a special quality to Puccini, as was shown in her recent
concert at the Festival Hall. As Mimì she was a radiant star, bringing instant pathos and her wonderfully rich tone to her
very first appearance in the celebrated Mi chiamano Mimì. She was as always a great actress, a sympathetic ensemble
player in the second act and a great tragic figure in her death scene, while her vocal prowess was evident in the incredibly
low tessitura of the later stages of the opera.
Gheorghiu’s performance was by far the most satisfying of the evening, though it seemed she inspired
her co-stars to unleash their full potential by the finale. As Rodolfo, Tito Beltrán was a little slow to warm up vocally,
but he was a committed actor and sang beautifully in the final two acts. Originally, Yu Qiang Dai was to have sung the role,
but he has been replaced by Beltrán (Rolando Villazón in two later performances) due to ill health. Given the short notice,
Beltrán did astonishingly well.
Gramophone Magazine Editor's Choice March 2005
"A thrilling collection of Puccini's many-faceted
heroines from the reigning diva. Here’s a feast indeed! Angela Gheorghiu, who has made quite a name for herself in Puccini,
offers a collection of heroines from the early Edgar to Turandot (with the exception of Tosca, which has only recently recorded).
She is in superb voice and is beautifully accompanied by the Milan orchestra under Tampa Opera’s Anton Coppola (incidentally,
the uncle of film director, Francis Ford Coppola)."
Angela Gheorghiu’s extensive discography
on EMI Classics attests to the sheer number of roles that she has explored during her career. From Massenet’s Manon
and Bizet’s Carmen, to Gounod’s Juliette, she has proven that she has a unique vocal flexibility to tackle very
varied repertoire. She now returns to the repertoire for which she is arguably best suited and which brought her to a worldwide
audience, in a new recording of arias by Giacomo Puccini.
Fourteen years ago Angela Gheorghiu was an unknown name in
the world of opera. Then in 1992 she made her international debuts at Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera in New York and
Vienna’s Staatsoper. Those who heard her perform knew that they were in the presence of a very special and rare talent.
Since then she has never looked back, finding herself in demand by the opera houses all over the world and winning a staggering
collection of major awards, including two Gramophone and Diapason d’Or awards, the US Critics’ Award, the Cæcilia
Prize in Belgium and the prize from the Deutsche Schallplattenkritik.
She has earned her place as one of the best sopranos
of her generation and it has been said that her voice is "…perhaps the most instantly recognizable and interesting soprano
voice of our time… a liquid instrument of great beauty…". Puccini himself might well have been in agreement. Throughout
his life, the soprano voice was the one he loved best, hence the amount of music he wrote for it. In this recording Angela
Gheorghiu brings us some of Puccini’s best loved arias. A number of these are from La Bohème, including Sì. Mi chiamano
Mimì and Donde lieta usci, both sung by Mimì. It is this opera and role which marked both Angela’s graduation from the
Bucharest Music Academy in 1990 and her international debut at Covent Garden, which shot her to stardom and brought her worldwide
acclaim and today she is without parallel on stage in this repertoire. The disc also contains Un bel dì vedremo and Tu, tu
piccolo Iddio from Madame Butterfly. For the latter aria she is joined by the tenor, her husband Roberto Alagna, with whom
she has given countless acclaimed performances both on stage and on disc, including those of Puccini’s operas La Rondine,
Tosca and La Bohème.
Angela Gheorghiu is accompanied on this recording by the Chorus of the Royal Opera House and the
Orchestra sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi under the baton of Anton Coppola. Anton Coppola has had an extremely successful
career as a conductor and a composer in the USA and as director of several opera houses. He has been honoured with the Lifetime
Achievement Award from the Puccini Foundation and recognized by the Italian government as Cavaliere, Gran Ufficiale. He is
currently the Artist Director of the Opera Tampa, the resident opera company in Tampa Bay, Florida.
A thrilling collection of Puccini’s many-faceted heroines
from the reigning diva Angela Gheorghiu by Alan Blyth
is a considerable addition to this ever-enterprising artist’s growing discography. Just when many of us were declaring
there would never be anyone to take on Renata Tebaldi’s mantle in spinto roles, here’s Angela Gheorghiu doing
just that. There is a similar strength of tone, breadth of phrasing and attention to musical and verbal detail. Everything
she achieves here is technically assured, thought through and emotionally rewarding.
Spurning EMI’s chosen order, I played the
arias in the order of their composition, a much preferable sequence. The piece from Le villi is a bit desultory, but
Fidelia’s two arias from Edgar reveal Puccini already adept at writing for his heroine; Gheorghiu sings them
both with the freshness and warmth they require. In the extracts from Manon Lescaut, she nicely contrasts the young,
bored girl of ‘In quelle trine morbide’, very much rivalling Tebaldi in a piece she recorded early in her career,
with the tragic import called for by ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’. Her Mimì in Decca’s La
bohème (A/99) was an appealing, cleanly articulated reading, and it still is, even if the youthful bloom isn’t quite
so much in evidence. Musetta, though, is now very much her role, her Waltz Song sung with zest adding to the fullness which
only a few others have brought to the piece. One can hear why EMI wanted ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ at its top: Gheorghiu’s
account is overwhelming, as is the death scene, again recalling Tebaldi. She is almost as moving in Suor Angelica’s
‘Senza mamma’, though here Scotto’s aching tones aren’t quite found. Magda’s solo and ‘O
mio babbino caro’ are as smiling and therefore as winning as they should be. From Turandot, Liù’s pains and sorrows are encompassed with ease and an apt morbidezza,
with finely poised pianissimo high notes. I thought might I have reservations about ‘In questa reggia’.
I needn’t have worried. Gheorghiu, who once told me she could sing any and everything, is a very womanly, vulnerable
Princess, along the lines of that presented by Callas in her complete set, but the Romanian diva’s singing is steadier,
the climaxes, with their high As and Bs, each taken in a single breath. Roberto Alagna, brought in briefly to sing Calaf,
matches his wife’s high C in the final phrase. This is an exciting conclusion to a deeply satisfying traversal of the
Puccini canon (Tosca and Il tabarro’s Giorgetta excepted), well supported by the Milan orchestra and Anton Coppola,
artistic director of Florida’s Opera Tampa.
Puccini Gala Concert Angela Gheorghiu (soprano); Philharmonia Orchestra/Ion Marin, Royal Festival
Hall, 10 May, 2005
Angela Gheorghiu evidently has a large and avid following, judging by this sold-out event. But
then again, so does Renée Fleming and there are big differences. Whatever caveats I may voice below, Gheorghiu is a genuine
artist and a real singer. She shows real affinity for her chosen music (in this case almost exclusively Puccini) and, while
possessing a beautiful voice, she uses it to express what is in the music. Much more sensible!
The Philharmonia had
a fair amount to do. A suspicious amount, some might say. Berlioz Roman Carnival Overture kicked things off, its exciting
beginning suiting a virtuoso orchestra. A fast cor anglais melody (from Benvenuto Cellini) told us Marin was keen to get on
and get his Romanian compatriot to the stage. Which was pretty much what most of the audience were probably thinking anyway.
Gheorghiu entered for two arias (Edgar and Gianni Schicchi) before leaving the orchestra centre stage once more. The
Edgar 'Nel villaggio' revealed a singer with a gorgeous voice, who can float a note beautifully and who is supremely even
over all registers. It also proved that Gheorghiu's is not a voice that cuts through orchestras, and if she was pacing herself,
she over-compensated rather on occasion O mio babbino caro(the Schicchi aria, and one shared with Flemings similar-style concert)
was a real siciliano and, even more importantly, a real no narcissism zone. Gheorghiu had the ability to make one believe
her emotions and to actually enter into the opera's scenario at this point. No small achievement under the circumstances.
But no sooner had she warmed up than another Overture arrived: Nabucco. The performance was actually much better than the
Berlioz had been. Trombones were creamy and there was even drama here, not to mention a rhythmic swing that almost made this
an Italian New Year's Day concert.
Two more arias before the interval. And proof positive that early Verdi to Puccini
is a long way to go. Donde lieta uscì(Bohème) had Gheorghiu exhibiting supreme control (particularly at the end, the memorable
line (Addio, senza rancor) although it was more difficult here to believe the sadness of the scenario. In quelle tride morbide
(Manon Lescaut) saw Gheorghiu back on form, but then it was time for her to go again
And for us, too, for a while,
for it was the interval. And if you felt short-changed by that, bear in mind that the post-interval Overture was nothing other
than Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture (all twenty-two minutes of it!). The difficult to tune woodwind chords
of the opening spoke of depleted rehearsal; and if the famous love-theme was expressively moulded, it seemed out of place
because there was no tension underlying it. As a run-through this was fine, but as a performance it was a non-starter.
used music for Puccini's Salve Regina, a quasi-pious work that, actually, she sang heavenly (no pun intended). Gheorghiu's
dolente approach to Tu che di gel sei cinta (Turandot Act III, Liù) worked towards a powerful end. We actually got three in
a row here, with a magnificently controlled Un bel dì (Butterfly) in which Gheorghiu exhibited magnificent breath control.
Particularly noteworthy was the way the inverted commas of Butterfly imagining the words Piccina mogliettina Olezzo di verbena
The orchestra seemed at last to grasp its chance to shine in the Intermezzo from Mascagni's Cavalleria
rusticana before the final two items, Che il bel sogno (Rondine) and Vissi d'arte (Tosca). The Rondine excerpt worked well
towards Tosca's Act II aria. Here in Tosca Gheorghiu seemed at the height of her powers. The perfect attack of the first note
(no trace of a scoop up there) led into an account wherein Gheorghiu caressed the line, rising naturally to a climax.
were, of course, encores and a standing ovation. Again, Gheorghiu used music for one item (Granada!). But in the end she did
triumph in a way that completely eluded la Fleming.
Gheorghiu; Orchestra Sinfonico di Milano Giuseppe Verdi/Coppola. EMI 5 579550
Angela Gheorghiu (soprano), Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, cond Anton Coppola
As half of opera's most glamorous couple, Angela Gheorghiu has long
been fodder for the gossip columns. For all the media razzmatazz, however, the Romanian diva remains a scrupulous artist
with one of the loveliest voices around: a warm lyric soprano that combines an intriguing contralto glint with soaring, shining
Mingled grandeur, sensuality and vulnerability: Angela Gheorghiu|
Perhaps Gheorghiu is a shade syrupy in "O mio babbino caro" from Gianni Schicchi. Elsewhere,
though, she is glorious, whether in her true and touching portrayals of Puccini's "great sorrows for little souls" - Mimì,
Liù and Madama Butterfly - her teasingly sexy Musetta, or her Manon, where, as in her Turandot, she summons unexpected reserves
of power for the girl's terrifying vision of her bloodstained past. (Telegraph)
Gheorghiu's new all-Puccini recital alights on each of his operas except Il tabarro, from
the early melodrama Le villi to the unfinished Turandot, in which her husband Roberto Alagna joins her as Calaf. Here she
sings both of Liù's arias before launching into Turandot's "In questa reggia" - a role she has never sung in the theatre,
though to judge from the mingled grandeur, sensuality and vulnerability of this performance, one that surely lies on the horizon.
|If Puccini were alive today, I’d be in love with him. I am sure of it. He knew
how to write for sopranos: he really loved them," says Angela Gheorghiu. |
And this soprano knows Puccini’s heroines
well, having most of them in her repertoire or in her plans.
On her latest CD, Puccini Arias, she steps into the shoes
of all his major soprano characters, with the exception of the adulterous Giorgetta in Puccini’s most impressionistic
score, Il Tabarro.
With her reputation for expensive tastes and well-publicised desire to be treated like a prima
donna of old, Gheorghiu would have enjoyed sharing Puccini’s flamboyant lifestyle, his interest in stylish clothes,
his penchant for fast cars and speedboats, and his willingness to be photographed.
She has defended her liking for
luxury, the elaborate conditions she lays down before interviews and photoshoots, and her reputation for prickliness.
stars, models, footballers’ wives, film stars, even celebrity smallfry make similar demands, so why are hers outrageous?
She says it’s a matter of professionalism.
The trouble is, people are not used to it in the arts world, bewildered
that anyone would need a hairdresser and make-up assistant for a radio interview, as Gheorghiu did.
to ferry her around, the insistence that tiny creases be ironed out of dresses before appearances, touching up her lippy in
the middle of a Verdi requiem televised live to millions - all are greeted with disbelief.
But it’s not so unusual
in someone who so clearly styles herself on the legendary operatic divas of the past. She is surely being optimistic, however,
if she thinks she could have persuaded Puccini to drop his hobby of shooting anything with wings, or broken the chain-smoking
habit that led to his death from throat cancer. "Maybe I could have convinced him not to," she says, only half-joking.
the failure and misery of his marriage, the complexity of his emotions and his roving eye might have driven even her to despair.
But she is clearly seduced by his attitude to his operatic heroines and the sumptuous music he created for them.
was with Puccini, as Mimi in La Boheme, that she made her debut, in Bucharest. She was the daughter of a train driver and
a dressmaker, living in Ceausescu’s Romania. But since making her Covent Garden debut as Zerlina in one performance
opposite Bryn Terfel’s Masetto in Don Giovanni in 1992, and returning to sing Mimi a few months later, her big moment
came in 1994 as Violetta in La Traviata under Sir Georg Solti. It was then that the critics dubbed her "a diva to die for".
The name Gheorghiu is a relic of a previous marriage to a plumbing engineer. At 39, at the height of her career, does
she regret not changing it?
"It’s not so important. My family name was Burlacu. But the name Gheorghiu belongs
to one of the most important artistic families in Romania, and I am on good terms with my ex-husband’s family. His father,
Stefan, was a violinist, and his uncle Valentin a pianist and composer, so I am really just keeping a great musical tradition
going," she says.
Gheorghiu’s partnership with her French-Sicilian tenor husband, Roberto Alagna, dating back
to their first encounter at Covent Garden in La Boheme in 1992, has resulted in acclaimed performances on stage, disc and
They married in 1996 in New York during a run of La Boheme at the Metropolitan Opera, and their lives quickly
became the stuff of romantic legend, their relationship the focus of media attention, their behaviour criticised, every appearance
Now, questions about their relationship, once paraded in their parallel careers, are discouraged. The
fact that he’s branching out on his own, taking roles in operas not in her repertoire - Aida and Cyrano de Bergerac,
for instance - she dismisses as "coincidence".
Yet when I ask her who chooses in which opera houses and in what repertoire
she’ll sing, she replies adamantly that she, and she alone, makes those decisions. Could it be that Alagna can no longer
compete with the lyrical beauty, gorgeous tone and classy acting that have made his wife so highly sought after? Or maybe
he’s just tired of Puccini and wants to move on.
When today’s most celebrated husband-and-wife opera partnership
can apparently command a third "duet" fee on top of their solo fees, it’s strange that their musical paths seem to be
But the secret once spilled by a lovestruck Gheorghiu that she and Alagna made love before performances
to relax their vocal cords sounds a bit sad now.
She switched record companies to share the same label as her husband,
and EMI quickly issued an album of love duets. But Alagna has since moved to a different label, making merely a cameo appearance
on her Puccini CD. As Pinkerton, he utters just three impassioned cries of, "Butterfly", and is only slightly more in evidence
as Calaf the unknown prince in In questa reggia from Turandot.
Despite her desire to keep her personal and professional
lives separate, Gheorghiu mentions his name particularly in connection with their "daughters". Ornella, Alagna’s daughter
with his first wife (who died of a brain tumour), lives in Paris; and Uana, who lives in London, is Gheorghiu’s niece,
whom they have looked after since the death of Gheorghiu’s sister in a car accident.
Gheorghiu and Alagna have
lived near Geneva for 10 years, yet she is little known in Switzerland, where restrictions on foreign nationals have limited
So what is it about Puccini that she finds so compelling? "He really understood theatre, the look
and feel of a play, so that everything is in the score," she says.
She feels at ease with the flow of natural speech
in his melodies. "I prefer that to the rigidity of bel canto - introduction, aria and cabaletta. A Puccini aria is really
a small drama in itself, a big story distilled into just three or four minutes. In Mozart, you have to go over and over things:
andiamo, andiamo, andiamo ... okay, I get it," she laughs.
Gheorghiu is passionate about exploiting modern technology.
She and Alagna have made two opera films, a 90-minute reduction of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette for television, and a
screen version of Tosca.
"It was hard work, but I’d like to make more, maybe La Rondine," she says. "Opera in
film is still quite rare, and opera fans don’t much like it. They think the use of playback somehow makes it false.
But it’s a matter of quality and how you do it."
Tosca is presented as a fully costumed operatic performance
intercut with black-and-white documentary footage of the recording. Purists could grumble not only that the visuals interrupt
the drama, but that they’d also prefer not to be exposed to Gheorghiu and Alagna having to lip-sync to a pre-recorded
"I am sorry, but the opera public has very old-fashioned ideas," Gheorghiu says with a shrug. "These people
are nostalgic and always want things to be as they were, or as they thought they were.
"But the world is changing
and I am living now and want to use all the equipment and developments of my time. I believe in the use of microphones and
making CDs and films - that is part of my testimony.
"Opera is theatre with music, and in the most powerful drama
everyone likes to cry. It’s human. Besides, I have tears in my voice. I was born like that. I don’t know why or
how, but I feel lucky to have both words and music, two tools with which to build dramatic situations.
"I like Puccini’s
emotional tenderness, too, the range of emotions and the difference in personality between the teenage Manon Lescaut, the
abused Butterfly, or the icy princess Turandot. They suit my voice and my temperament, even though I always seem to be killing
* Who: Angela Gheorghiu, Romanian-born soprano and international opera
* What: Puccini Arias, Orchestra Sinfonico di Milano Giuseppe Verdi/Anton Coppola, out now