A week has passed since the Fleming debacle at the Royal Festival Hall, when the great American diva decided that singing in her own concert was a decided luxury and should therefore be supplied sparingly. Fearing that the new age of austerity had quietly introduced vocal rationing, one’s expectations about Angela Gheorghiu’s concert were somewhat mixed. As it turned out the Romanian diva showed tremendous generosity of spirit, if not necessarily good taste. The whole performance could no doubt be considered contrived or charmless by my more po-faced colleagues, but undeniably there was passion from Gheorghiu, and an affinity with her public. She clearly decided in advance that she would get that standing ovation even if it meant changing frocks and encoring all night. As it was, we received three mad couture dresses and four ovations before that particular event occurred. With memories of a rather sour night and a single encore from Fleming, I applaud Gheorghiu’s largesse, if not necessarily her musical choices, style or choice of tenor.
The programme was a peculiar one to say the least. The concert started inauspiciously with a well played, albeit out of place performance of the overture from Bernstein’s Candide. Plonked at the beginning of the concert and sharing no common identity with the rest of the selections, whether musically or dramatically, its inclusion was a touch bizarre. From here onwards it was little more than a series of sickly duets, with just two solo arias (not including encores) from Gheorghiu, and likewise from the Romanian tenor Marius Manea. “Parigi, o cara” from La traviata and “Caro elisir” from L’elisir d’amore both seemed rather lacklustre. It is sad to say, but Gheorghiu is now just a little too old to be a convincing Adina, as her characterisation seems both arch and matronly. As for Manea, there is promise in the voice, but it is beset with problems. It is not undistinguished per se, as there is a clear, open throated texture to it, with a charming flutter in anything above high G. There is also sufficient agility and power where needed, enabling him to encompass many roles within the tenore di grazia repertory, as well as some which are more rightly associated with a full voiced lyric. What he lacks is poise, confidence and secure intonation. On numerous occasions throughout the evening he was audibly flat, especially so in “Salut! demeure chaste et pure” from Gounod’s Faust. As far as initial impressions go, it is a C-list voice with potential to go further, but at the moment he is certainly not a worthy partner of Gheorghiu. Her patronage is undoubtedly laudable, but rather misguided in its application.
The highlight of the entire evening was undoubtedly Gheorghiu’s sumptuous rendition of “Pleurez, pleurez mes yeux” from Massenet’s Le Cid. I have always thought this aria is better performed by a lirico-spinto than a pure lyric soprano like Gheorghiu, however her voice did display sufficient morbidezza which coloured the singing perfectly, even if it lacked the necessary tonal weight. Her high B was the best thing heard all evening, but the plummeting descent into a non-existent chest register scuppered the performance from being declared a complete success. Throughout the entire evening one became increasingly aware that Gheorghiu has two voices instead of one. A rich, expressive and plangent middle, dark in colour with the full weight of a lyric soprano, coupled with a well focused and bold top. However, her lower register is more myth than reality. Much of the repertoire she chose to sing led to unkind excursions into this Minnie Mouse chest register, ensuring that she could barely be heard, except perhaps by those people who sat in the first few rows of the stalls.
After a somewhat musically flaccid first half, things marginally improved following the interval. The “Cherry Duet” from Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz should have been a disaster, especially when one takes into account Manea’s variable intonation and Gheorghiu’s memory lapse, which resulted in the duet being stopped mid-way until she worked out where it had gone wrong, and then picked herself up and jumped back on to where she had left off . What did in fact happen, was a noticeable change in how the soprano and tenor were being received by the audience. Until then applause had been forthcoming in a rather timid fashion, but afterwards the atmosphere changed and people seemingly began to enjoy themselves, including Gheorghiu. Manea’s account of “Quando le sere al placido chiaror d’ un ciel stellato” from Verdi’s Luisa Miller, will not have Bergonzi fretting over his laurels just yet, however it was an acceptable and promising performance. Stylish at times and with a surprising punch to the voice, it could have been wonderful, were it not for his somewhat hesitant stage presence and tendency to go flat.
Gheorghiu made too little of “Morró, ma prima in grazia” from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. The soaring high B came easily, but once again her inaudible chest register proved to be a major disappointment. Apparently the original programme was due to feature “Pace, pace mio Dio” instead, which surely would have been a wiser selection seeing as the tessitura is higher? The concert officially came to a close with a self- conscious rendition of the duet “O soave fanciulla” from Puccini’s La boheme. It was rather cloying, with Gheorghiu more of a vampish Musetta than a sang-froid Mimi.
We were “treated” generously to four encores: “O mio babbino caro”, the ghastly “Non ti scordar di me”, “Granada” and the Brindisi from La traviata. “O mio babbino caro” was certainly more effective than Fleming’s rendition, primarily because of Gheorghiu’s warmer, Italianate timbre. The rest was riotously mad and for all the wrong reasons. “Granada” was uncomfortably funny, simply because it was more La Gran Scena, than great diva. Much of it laid far too low for us to hear what she was singing, but our attention was suitably diverted by her mad stage antics. The Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Ion Marin were sympathetic conspirators throughout the evening’s entertainment, playing with style if not panache.
What Gheorghiu remembered, which Fleming (who is undoubtedly the more gifted of the two artists) patently forgot, is that people have paid for their seats expecting to be entertained, and that an artist, no matter how successful and lauded, should never forget this basic fact. I’m sure this concert could have been improved significantly with a few additional arias from Gheorghiu and little to no contribution from Manea, but she did entertain and delight her audience with truly demented diva glamour.