Angela Gheorghiu at the Royal Festival Hall
November 10th, 2009
Leonard Bernstein: Candide – Overture
Giuseppe Verdi: Parigi, o cara (La Traviata) Angela Gheorghiu & Marius Manea
Jules Massenet: Pleurez, pleurez mes yeux (Le Cid) Angela Gheorghiu
Charles Gounod: Salut! Demeure chaste et pure (Faust) Marius Manea
Georges Bizet: Intermezzo from L’arlesienne Suite No.2
Georges Bizet: Farandole from L’arlesienne Suite No.2
Gaetano Donizetti: Caro elisir (L’elisir d’amore) Angela Gheorghiu & Marius Manea
Pietro Mascagni: Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana
Pietro Mascagni: Cherry duet (L’amico Fritz) Angela Gheorghiu & Marius Manea
Giuseppe Verdi: Quando le sere al placido (Luisa Miller) Marius Manea Giuseppe Verdi: Overture, La forza del destino
Giuseppe Verdi: Morro, ma prima in grazie (Un ballo in maschera) Angela Gheorghiu replaced Pace, pace mio DioGiacomo Puccini: O soave fanciulla (La Boheme) Angela Gheorghiu & Marius Manea
The recent news of Angela Gheorghiu’s impending divorce from Roberto Alagna may give some clue as to why this performance, part of the South Bank’s second ‘International Voices’ season, was postponed from its planned date of 2nd October. In the interim she has also, in the role of her accompanying tenor, swapped the American up-and-comer James Valenti, due to co-star with her in next year’s Covent Garden La Traviata, for her compatriot Marius Manea, who she has performed with several times already this year. The conductor Ion Marin made it three out of three for Romanians in the principal roles of the evening, here conducting the Philharmonia.
This ‘gala concert’, as it is called on Gheorghiu’s website, saw her, in terms of workrate, struggling to justify her sole headline status. Of the twelve items listed on the programme, she sang on half (three solo arias, three duets with Manea). Much of the remaining space was filled with purely orchestral operatic excerpts, including the opener, Bernstein’s Candide Overture – an enjoyably zesty but slightly odd choice that bore little relation to the predominately 19th century Italianate programme that followed, and would have provided a refreshing break had it been placed in the middle of the running order. No insight could be gleaned from the event’s programme notes, which included detailed text on all the arias (plus all their lyrics in the original language and English translation) but none whatsoever on the instrumental pieces.
The audience’s applause was warm but not yet ecstatic as the singers took the stage. Gheorghiu’s slight trip on the hem of her dress as she came on did not affect the performance of the love duet ‘Parigi, o cara’ from La Traviata, though the RFH’s famously life-challenged acoustic did, contributing to the orchestra’s masking of their initial vocal entry. This problem occasionally resurfaced later on in the concert, predominately affecting Gheorghiu, who was tonally very attractive but somewhat wanting for projection. This was not a serious issue, however, and not evident at all in the next couple of items, both solo arias from French operas. Through no fault of the tenor’s, Gheorghiu’s ‘Pleurez, pleurez mes yeux’, from Le Cid by Massenet, made more impression than the bland ‘Salut! demeure chaste et pure’ from Gounod’s Faust, which Manea and Marin could not much enliven.
The Intermezzo and Farandole from Bizet’s 2nd Arlésienne Suite followed, their greater timbral and rhythmic variety when compared to most of the programme being a definite plus. Given enough to work with, perhaps, Marin succeeded here; by contrast, the Philharmonia’s staid rendition of Cavalleria Rusticana’s much-loved Intermezzo, which began the second half, made a mockery of the programme notes’ claim for him as ‘one of the most exciting conductors of his generation’. At that point the most enthralling thing about him was the improbable sleekness of his glossy grey mane of hair. In between these differing orchestral items, the first half closer, for me the most effective duet of the night, was Donizetti’s ‘Caro elisir’ from L’elisir d’amore, a nice comic interlude amidst the tragedy and romance (and tragic romance) on show elsewhere. To quibble perhaps overmuch, I think it probably lacked a little something without the full stage actions and props.
Greater incident was to come in the second half. The singers’ return for the ‘Cherry Duet’ from Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz saw some of the most enthusiastic pre-encore applause of the night for the first costume change – no doubt predominately for Gheorghiu’s vivid scarlet strapless dress, quite different from the plush purple velvet number she had begun with, though Manea made the effort also in moving from a normal to a pinstripe suit. Gheorghiu’s first solo aria had seen her leaning on the conductor’s stand at times, a seemingly actorly gesture that was thrown into new light when, halfway through the ‘Cherry Duet’, she first of all turned to read Marin’s score, then, realising she was lost, called a halt mid-phrase with “Sorry, sorry, sorry”. Fortunately her memory was quickly refreshed and everyone comfortably picked up again, a supportive call from an audience member leading the applause afterwards to assure that all was forgiven. Gheorghiu tapped her head, seemingly genuinely embarrassed but probably also milking the theatricality of the moment. It was an interesting illustration of how something that could set back a newcomer’s career can perhaps contribute to the audience’s affection for an established performer.
Nevertheless, the lapse did seem to have an effect on the other performers at first. In the first of a Verdi triple bill, a poorly intonated cello phrase leading into one of Manea’s entries in Luisa Miller’s ‘Quando le sere al placido chiaror d’un ciel stellato’, was followed, whether coincidentally or not, by the tenor being noticeably out of tune for the next section. This was the only real instance of pitching problems in the concert; it was a pity it had to come in the second of his two solo arias, especially as it was nonetheless far more affecting than the Gounod item. Things got back on track with a rousing Forza del destino Overture, another good showpiece for the different sections of the orchestra.
Gheorghiu’s second solo aria, ‘Morrò, ma prima in grazia’ from Un ballo in maschera, brought another costume change, this time to a slightly ridiculous pink and green outfit reminiscent of a Disney princess. Her singing was not overshadowed, however, delivering the requisite dramatic force to the extent that the following ‘O soave fanciulla’ from La bohème made a somewhat anticlimactic end to the official programme, not helped by the awkwardness of the singers’ move to the side of the too-cramped stage for the final bars. The issue of space was one that had been in evidence throughout, Ion Marin appearing to be understandably impatient with the (in my opinion) unnecessary rearranging of the second violins for the orchestral interludes to move them closer to the rest of the ensemble, after they had been forced to spread out to allow the singers passage to the stage. In fact, he exuded a general air of slight irritation for most of the concert, probably resenting the rigmarole of being included in every bow, exiting and returning to the stage after each item, and so on. I for one couldn’t blame him for that.
The encores brought some of the most engaging performances of the evening, but to have four of them was overkill. ‘O mio babbino caro’ saw Gheorghiu rather keener than Marin to linger over her notes – naturally she came off best in the tussle. The following waltz duet, which as a relative layman to opera I must admit to being unfamiliar with, was pleasant enough but unnecessary, while Gheorghiu was often somewhat submerged by the orchestra in her solo ‘Granada’. That left one last crowd-pleasing duet of ‘Libiamo’, with most clapping along as instructed and a well-rehearsed comedy moment with Marin interrupting to sing a snatch himself.
Perhaps aware that this really was the end now, many of the audience gave a standing ovation that was frankly not deserved by this middling concert. As a showbiz event, heavily dependent on Angela Gheorghiu’s charisma, it was more successful than as a musical performance, and if paying top price, you really would have had to be a massive fan not to feel cheated by the disingenuous promoting of it as a Gheorghiu solo recital. The unadventurous programming and awkward staging did nothing to combat my scepticism about this kind of event, however happy the faithful seemed with it. To hear the old favourites yet again, I for one would rather it was in the original context of the complete operas, and for me the greatest virtue of this concert was that it did make me want to experience Gheorghiu’s singing again—next time, I hope, in the very setting I have suggested.