Some girls… and a Rolling Stone (III): Angela Gheorghiu – Autograph

After Zeani and Moșuc, we have arrived at the last set of CDs of 2015, belonging to Angela Gheorghiu. A moment of career evaluation for the most important Romanian soprano of the last 25 years. This time we are talking about a real career in recording – compared to it, Virginia Zeani’s studio recordings seem accidental (but more precious because of this), and Elena Mosuc’s ones seem rarities, as she has no complete opera recording made in studio. Angela Gheorghiu is the last big soprano, with a discography that can be compared to that of the stars in the ’50s-’80s and we have to take into account that this has been happening while the phonographic industry has taken a declining path. Her career has two major phases: at first, with Decca (where Luciano Pavarotti or Renata Tebaldi had exclusivity agreements), then, starting 1996, with EMI (the label of Maria Callas or Dinu Lipatti). Between these two landmarks, Angela Gheorghiu has made some very important “escapes” to Deutsche Grammophon (Karajan’s headquarters) or to other smaller labels (Larghetto or MediaPro). In 2013, Warner bought EMI, whose archives are a real treasure, an important part of the universal musical heritage. So, Autograph, the set produced by Warner, includes to a very high extent Angela Gheorghiu’s recordings from EMI. In these circumstances, we are deprived of the very beautiful recordings with La traviata (only Addio del passato), La bohème and L’elisir d’amore or of the sacred music recital Mysterium, all produced with Decca, and replaced by live fragments, recorded later. A regret.

An evening with Angela Gheorghiu

The first CD is called “Femmes fatales”, and they are: Carmen, Dalila and Manon. The selections from the album Carmen by Bizet are a surprise: the CD from 2003 was a little dull, in spite of an excellent cast. But here, in 34 minutes, concentrated, we have all the sequences where Angela Gheorghiu appears and the impression is very good. The same freshness comes from the half an hour of Manon by Massenet (2000), completed by the two arias from Manon Lescaut by Puccini, but with the benefit that the interpretation lets us see clearly the two different musical visions of the same literary character. Roberto Alagna, excellent in the French repertoire, shines in many moments of these selections and, inevitably, this makes us nostalgic of a vocal couple that made history for more than a decade. Finally, the sensuality in Dalila’s aria is indisputable. The Autograph set starts very, very well.

Angela Autograph CD Cover

The second disc, “Puccini Heroines”, continues in the same idea, that of extracting the whole feminine role from the complete recordings of Tosca (25 minutes from the soundtrack of Benoît Jacquot’s beautiful movie, made in 2001) and Madama Butterfly (47 minutes, from the album produced in 2009), completed with Liù’s two arias, from Turandot (to which we also add Turandot’s aria from the CD number 6, “Verismo”). When a lyrical voice (based on the intrinsic beauty of the timbre) goes courageously to the spinto repertoire (where clarity and force dominate in the dramatic musical moments), the next step is an explosion, and the audience goes crazy. For Angela Gheorghiu, this moment was expected in 2001, when she recorded Tosca. After La traviata, La bohème, but mainly after L’elisir d’amore, where her full, velvety, dark timbre, doubled by a vibrato like a romantic beat, had made wonders, it was obvious that this voice could produce revelations in more dramatic roles. The result was a Floria Tosca who was strong but who did not lose anything of her femininity. As for Cio-Cio-San, this balance between the vulnerability of the first act and the despair of the suicide scene was maintained impressive, even though the oriental exoticism seemed to be lost on the way in some points. The cut of the sequences on this CD is a little strange (for example, Gran ventura finishes suddenly, immediately after the soprano’s last note, but before the end of the musical phrase).

“Daughters” – the third disc of the set – is centred on the French opera: two important fragments from Roméo et Juliette by Gounod (42 minutes) and Werther by Massenet (11 minutes), both coming from the complete recordings made in 1996, and in 1998, albums that were famous at their time. But the nostalgia appears with the other fragments from famous operas, that Angela Gheorghiu has never recorded completely, or has never sung on stage, so that we are inconsolable and we think “how would this have been if…?” First of all, Simon Boccanegra, and the aria missing is precisely Come in quest’ora bruna, the most important soprano aria in this opera. Then Rigoletto, what a pity she has not recorded Verdi’s masterpiece in the studio! Le Cid and Louise, operas that are generally less sung, complete this picture, together with Gianni Schicchi (from which O mio babbino caro has become, in time, a vocal signature of the artist, and here is the true musical autograph!) and West Side Story. 

“From Baroque to Bel Canto” is a jewel chest, mainly for the baroque, whether we are talking about arias with piano accompaniment by Jeff Cohen, from a recital at Teatro alla Scala, in 2006, or with the Royal Opera House orchestra, conducted by Ion Marin, in 2001. The belcanto in the second part of this disc inevitably fuels the comparisons with Maria Callas. Medea, Lucia di Lammermoor, Norma, Anna Bolena, La sonnambula, I puritani, or Il barbiere di Siviglia are, all of them, Maria Callas’ famous roles, but they are a repertoire in which Angela Gheorghiu has never ventured, even though arias like Casta diva or Regnava nel silenzio were hiding vocal promises that were so beautiful.

As expected, there is also a disc dedicated to Giuseppe Verdi. Unfortunately, La traviata was a real Fata Morgana for EMI. Callas could not record it because of the exclusivity with Cetra, and Angela Gheorghiu because of her contract with Decca, therefore, the greatest interpreters of Violetta Valéry have only the live recordings. Maybe this is the explanation for the very few arias from La traviata we find in this set. That’s a pity, maybe some larger fragments from the excellent performance in 2007, at Teatro alla Scala, would have re-established, at least proportionally,  the importance of this role in the last 25 years of the artist’s career. Still, we have 20 minutes from Il trovatore, a role recorded only in the studio and which didn’t deserve to be forgotten, as this Leonora is profoundly unsettling (D’amor sull ali rosee). And, obviously, from Verdi’s music, that Angela Gheorghiu did not visit extensively, we have all the soprano part in Messa da Requiem, where, rarely met at a diva, all the operatic airs disappear and make place for the authentic emotion, produced also by Claudio Abbado’s conducting, who was in a moment of grace. And a rarity, three songs by Verdi, from his beginnings (In solitaria stanza – 1838, so before his first opera, Oberto, then  Brindisi and Stornello – 1845).

“Verismo”, the penultimate disc in the set, could be very well considered as the second disc dedicated to Puccini. The excerpts from La bohème fatally avoid the studio recording from La Scala, unfortunately, the fragments from La rondine are not so many either. Of course, we are breathless when listening to Il bel sogno di Doretta, as always, this is one of the soprano’s most appreciated recordings. The rest of the disc contains arias from the album Puccini (2001): Cavalleria rusticana, Andrea Chénier, Suor Angelica, La fanciulla del West (an almost ideal Minnie!) or Turandot. Adrianna Lecouvreur is present, too, but maybe she would have deserved more than just the two arias (Io son l’umila ancella and Poveri fiori), or maybe I would have liked this moment to last longer.

The final CD, with French and Romanian arias and songs, returns to Carmen by Bizet, this time as Micaela, and arrives to another important role, Marguerite, from Faust. Then Romanian songs, some of them can be found also on Elena Moșuc’s set. But I was happy to see Tiberiu Soare included in this set, as the conductor of the last three songs, Christmas carols from the not very inspired album produced by MediaPro. After all, these somehow ostentatious returns to the Romanian music do nothing else but increase our regrets that Angela Gheorghiu has not sung a complete opera in Romania.

The Autograph set does not end very well: the interview given to John Tolansky is carelessly treated, the English is embarrassing most of the times, proving a lack of professionalism that is surprising for a label such as Warner, and the DVD presents a selection that does not have too much logic (some arias from concerts, and only a few videoclips).

This is the music of a 25 year career, that has no equivalent in Romania. Fortunately, this career goes on and I hope that this unrivalled soprano’s story will include at some moment (at least) one La bohème in Bucharest, before it is too late. With all the weak points, caused mainly by the fact that it is difficult to select the essence from an extraordinary discography, the Autograph set is worth all the money, and we are looking forward to a complete recording set, like that of Maria Callas.

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