Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Angela Gheorghiu sings Puccini Arias @ Royal Festival Hall, London

10 May 2005

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

With the demise of the classical recording industry has come an increase in the number of live recordings in concert halls and opera houses. The opposite has also happened, with the “pop stars” of the opera world touring the concert halls with highlights from their latest CDs. Angela Gheorghiu’s concert of Puccini arias at the Royal Festival Hall was one such example, designed to plug her recent Puccini album, which has been generally though not universally well received.

On the basis of this concert, it’s certainly worth buying, though we were only treated to about half of the arias on the CD. This was a bit frustrating, as Gheorghiu tended to select numbers which she has been singing for some time rather than the more interesting items. Of the three arias from Turandot on the CD, for instance, she chose Liu’s Tu che di gel rather than Turandot’s In questa reggia, one of the more impressive and arresting interpretations on the album.

This is a minor quibble, however, as Gheorghiu was both emotionally giving and intelligent. She opened with Nel villaggio from Puccini’s little-known second opera Edgar. This was understandably a pipe-opener, but every word was deeply felt. Heaven curse the programme writer, incidentally, who confused the entire audience by providing more text/translation than was performed in the opening aria. The first group closed with O mio babbino caro, which was sung with delicate legato (though the strings sometimes overpowered the singing).

Next was Donde lieta uscì from La Bohème. This was sensational, Gheorghiu rising admirably to the challenge of the very low register of the aria. Her Mimi is world-renowned and Covent Garden audiences have the chance to hear her in the role in three performances at the end of June. If it is anything like as moving as in this concert, surely the House will be moved to tears by the end.

Manon Lescaut is not an opera that Gheorghiu has yet sung, but the role would suit her down to the ground, as her In quelle trine morbide showed. Tu che di gel was marvellous, too, but it was with Un bel dì from Madama Butterfly that things really came alive. With a more substantial aria, Gheorghiu was able to fully inhabit a character at last, and her voice soared breathtakingly above the orchestra.

The singer’s portrayal of Magda in La Rondine is definitive, as her Royal Opera appearances last November showed, but she managed to outshine even her famous recording of Chi il bel sogno di Doretta in this concert. Next June she will make her role debut as Tosca at Covent Garden, and gave us a glimpse of her interpretation in a poignant rendition of Vissi d’arte.

Ms Gheorghiu let her hair down somewhat in encores that were the complete antithesis of Puccini. Non ti scordar di me was given a bizarre Broadway cymbal beat which robbed the soprano’s clarity of line. Her favourite Romanian song, Muzica by Grigoriu, was generously performed with her back to the hall so that the people sitting in the choir seats behind the orchestra could hear some of her singing clearly; and the Spanish flavour Granada ended the evening with a mighty swish of enthusiasm.

These three pieces were an odd ending to a supposed Puccini programme, but when performed with such passion, commitment and dexterity, who could complain? Ion Marin conducted the superior Philharmonia orchestra with panache, but the orchestra’s solo items – especially Berlioz’s Roman Carnival overture and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture – seemed rather out of place amidst the Italian romance of Puccini.

Yet it was Gheorghiu’s evening, and the well-deserved standing ovation at the end acknowledged her high status as one of the world’s leading opera singers.

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