Angela Gheorghiu’s appearance at the Barbican on Tuesday evening was certainly an event.
Popular arias, orchestral showpieces, glamorous costume changes, tumultuous applause at every possible moment and, finally, never-ending encores: it was great entertainment.
But great music? At times it was, certainly, but beneath the glitz and circumstance, this was an evening of mixed success.
Gheorghiu’s voice is still an unbelievable instrument – pure, limpid and beautiful – but it lacks body and heft. The upper register can be a struggle and the lower notes under projected. In the face of a full-blooded London Symphony Orchestra, Gheorghiu’s sound could be drowned beneath sturdy orchestral waves.
But when balanced astride the lilting string phrases in Lascia ch’io pianga from Handel’s Rinaldo, her effortless piano line drifted through the hall with extraordinary clarity. And the Puccini arias were intelligently delivered. Un bel d, that popular weepie from Madama Butterfly, was both expressive and sweetly toned. O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi boasted the most securely floated head notes and the most languidly breathed phrases.
And in Ch’il bel sogno from La Rondine, if Gheorghiu threatened to veer sharp whenever the vocal line rose, then she controlled the urge excellently and sang with great poignancy. But the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen calls for the fruiter, more colourful instrument of a mezzo, and though the quality of Gheorghiu’s chest voice was appropriately harsh and even Spanish-sounding, those low notes lacked power. Even in the Puccini, the absence of beef was noticeable. The great vocal climax of Un bel d was hardly audible, and the sound produced throughout was often surprisingly thin and caught somewhere in the throat.
The orchestra under Ion Marin coped manfully with the Overture to Nabucco (lots of precisely shaped rhythms and ringing forte claps), but here and in the big love theme of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, that final edge of Romantic passion was absent. The accompaniments, however, were superb. I particularly admired the angular woodwind playing in the Habanera and the burning orchestral landscape that emerged during Un bel d.
But the programme did not thrill. For me, there was an overdose of beautiful legato and romantic (and mostly Romantic) soaring. Gheorghiu is a world class artist, but talent should go hand in hand with venture, and these ‘popular’ programmes are hardly stretching. Then again, we all need a grand, glitzy evening once in a while, and the ringing applause made clear that the Barbican crowd loved every minute of it.