Angela Gheorghiu’s Memoirs

Angela Gheorghiu – A Life for Art
Angela Gheorghiu with Jon Tolansky
ForeEdge/ University Press of New England, Lebanon, USA, 2018

I felt a tug at the beginning of 2018, when I heard that Angela Gheorghiu was going to publish her memoirs. I was hoping for this zenith moment to come as late as possible. Of course, the career of one of the most famous Romanian sopranos is not over yet, still the memoirs often mean a final point, a moment from where you can look back, an evaluation. I took advantage of a few days off to read the e-book, while I was watching the DVDs or listening to her audio recordings. The book left me equally touched and disappointed. Her Violetta in London – ravishing, conquering the world, her Adina in Lyon – a seducing wasp, Mimì from the Met and Covent Garden, the last Traviatas at la Scala, her Tosca in London and those in Vienna, Adriana, Magda, Lìu, Micaëla… Seeing again some of her performances moved me deeply.

The copyright for the book belongs to Angela Gheorghiu, and the book itself exists only in English – there has been no information about a possible Romanian version. It is a very long interview and Jon Tolansky’s name should have been a guarantee for seriousness. Tolansky is an important British documentarist, whose texts you have most probably met (even without remembering his name) in the booklets accompanying many opera CDs from EMI/Warner or Decca, and this is not the first time when he meets Angela Gheorghiu. In the July 2011 issue of Opera, he published a 7 page material about the artist, who had just been singing in a revival of Tosca at the Covent Garden. The title of the article was… Vissi d’arte, which is also the title of a famous aria in the opera and is translated (slightly adapted) into English by A Life for Art. Then, the same Jon Tolansky produced the materials in the booklet for the CD set Angela Gheorghiu – Autograph (I wrote a review when it was issued), and interviewed her for the last of the eight CDs. The cover of the book does not include Sorana Savu, PR specialist from Romania, responsible for the glamour-marketable touches of this published product (and, probably, also for a part of the interview, as the long dialogue has several areas of uneven quality), by the numeours inserts with testimonials from people in the artist’s life. In Romania, testimonials are considered the highest refinement, as homages justify any skid from modesty, even more if they come from famous persons. I met the same technique taken from marketing strategies (testimonials) in Viorica Cortez’s autobiography, in dialogue with Marius Constantinescu, with the same boring, repetitive and distasteful effect.

For those who are old enough to have followed Angela Gheorghiu’s career since its beginning, this book brings no novelty, and Tolansky’s article in Opera Magazine is a very good abstract for these memoirs, at least because it records more the artistic part and less the personal one. And we all know this personal part from the many interviews given by Angela Gheorghiu to the media. For those who were just kids when the soprano made her debut at Covent Garden, the book is a rather true mirror of her personality as it has been reflected in the media, for better or worse.

The result of all the above-mentioned procedures looks like a fairy tale. But isn’t Angela Gheorghiu’s career itself a fairy tale? From the knolls of gravel on the sides of the streets in Adjud, where she used to sing during her childhood, in a communist country run by a former cobbler, to get to sing with such a big success in Covent Garden, Scala, Metropolitan or Viena: there’s such a long way, made in just one night, like in a dream story come true. Even more as the leap was sudden, in a context where Angela Gheorghiu had never sung in an opera on stage (except for one La Bohème as graduation exam, in Cluj).

Neither Maria Callas, nor, more recently, Jonas Kaufmann had the chance of being offered a contract in a major opera house after one single audition, when they graduated. The years of difficulties were long and frustrating for all important opera singers, but not for Angela Gheorghiu. This is a confirmation for the extraordinary quality of her voice, very unique, easily recognisable by anyone among other 1000 soprano voices. Then her marriage to a famous tenor, in the wings of the Met, during the intermission of La bohème: how can it get more romantic than this? And then life truly becomes a tale, with princesses and fairies, and Angela cast herself in both parts in her memoirs.

Nearly half of the book represents memories from childhood, high school and university, which get tiring at a certain moment, even more because the soprano’s value judgements about communist society are a little insipid. They might be interesting for the readers outside Romania, even though these might be misled by some of the explanations: workers in the railways are presented as middle class, and Gheorghiu family of musicians are introduced as aristocrats.

The most interesting moment in the book is related to the debut in La traviata at Covent Garden, in 1994.  The sheer memory of this performance pushed me to watch the DVD again, such a marvel! She was incredibly beautiful, she was radiant with innocence and vocal virtuosity. Obviously, we meet here all the exaggerations perpetuated in all her presentations: Solti cried during her audition, the BBC stopped their program to broadcast her performance, everything was planned around her, who was to become a diva. Still, this was not only her debut. Georg Solti, the conductor of the most important Tetralogy in Wagner’s discography, had despised all his life Verdi’s early operas, and had thought it was not worth wasting his time with operas before Un ballo in maschera: now he was the debutant on Traviata’s podium. Richard Eyre, manager of the National Theatre, was entering Opera with the production in Covent Garden, and the debutant in the title role was a revelation. In this context, the Royal Opera House in London seized the opportunity of preserving a series of historical performances and everything was recorded on audio and video discs.  But this was also the case with Fidelio, conducted by Klemperer in the same place. The disc made history, and it is considered the supreme benchmark in Beethoven’s opera interpretation. The same goes for Don Carlo, directed by Visconti, and broadcasted by BBC Radio in 1958. And, when the video recording of the performances became very simple and affordable, they also issued a video recorded in the ’80s, with Ileana Cotrubaș as Elisabetta di Valois. We can find such a sense for opportunity even in Romania, when Electrecord recorded in studio Traviata with Virginia Zeani, who had returned very briefly to Romania. Until the 25th of November 1994, date of this Traviata premiere in Covent Garden, Angela Gheorghiu had been a promising soprano. Eight performances later, on the 19th of December, she was a superstar. The secret? Angela Gheorghiu tells it herself in what might be the most profound passage in the whole book:

People sometimes say that for Violetta Valery you need two, three, I don’t know how many voices. Not at all! You have to give a very wide range of different colors with the same voice—the same Violetta. What is so demanding is that she changes so much and sometimes so quickly, so you have to give those changes many, many different shades and kinds of color and sometimes quite suddenly. You have to be able to change your colors during every role that you sing, but with Violetta the changes are really extreme. Again I have to say this: the word gives you the color, and Violetta’s words are so expressive, so emotional—there are your colors. But not with different kinds of voices for the different acts, no—very many different colors, yes: sparkle and coloratura at the end of the first act, often very dramatic and tragic in the second act, then of course she is dying and abandoned in the third act, but all with the same voice singing.

Here we see Jon Tolansky’s talent in making a very instinctive person, like Angela Gheorghiu, put into words her perspective on the important parts in her career. And this is not the only example, as the soprano speaks coherently also about Mimì, Cio-Cio-San or Adriana Lecouvreur. It is true, nobobdy can claim the role of having mentoring the soprano. Not even Mia Barbu, or maybe just for a short time, as her classes covered only a part of Angela Gheorghiu’s high-school years. Without any prejudices from other sopranos, experienced in different parts (the soprano tells us how, at a certain moment, she refused the advice coming from Ileana Cotrubaș), she prepared for her parts 100% by herself and, sometimes, with the support of the conductors she worked with, mainly Georg Solti and Antonio Pappano. Which does not mean that the artists who study with a professor are less good. Franco Corelli studied with Giacomo Lauri-Volpi until the latter died, even though he indisputably was the most famous tenor of the world. But this shows a very strong personality in the case of Angela Gheorghiu. Even a too strong one, to the prejudice of reason.

The same as the artist refused counseling from Ileana Cotrubaș, we cannot say the same thing about judging different persons, almost exclusively through the lens of gossip from the back of the stage. And here, the book is on the verge of outrage. First of all, Arta Florescu, preceeded by her dark legend even before meeting Angela Gheorghiu. Yes, Arta Florescu was a convinced communist and her conflicts with different Romanian opera artists were very rough. Still, the memoirs do not include any concrete example of a harm she had done to the student Angela Burlacu while she was in the Music University. No exam she failed because of Arta Florescu, no attempt of imposing an inadequate canto techniaue, nothing. Only the fact that Florescu sent the aspiring soprano to tour in factories, in cold and hunger, but Angela Gheorghiu herself admits these tours were useful, as she was confronted with the audience. Then, Ioan Holender is a suspect because he tried to hire her with a permanent contract at the Wiener Staatsoper, in a moment when Angela was far from being a star yet. Moreover, she copies the lack of gratitude from the Romanian artists hired by Holender in Viena, and blames him for not paying them enough, when nobody stopped them from having an independent career, and the contracts at the Staatsoper in the ’90s were ten times bigger than those for soloists in the Romanian opera houses. Finally, Ricardo Muti is another person who ends up criticised in Angela Gheorghiu’s memoirs, only because the soprano wanted to avoid him but failed, and sang under his direction a series of La traviata in Salzburg. The reason why it was not good to sing with Muti? Because, at that time, he was the manager of Teatro alla Scala, where the loggionisti were booing everyone: for the soprano, this was unacceptable behaviour, as she cannot stand any criticism, but only the adulating sounds and crying hiccups:

That is why I refused to read reviews—it is the subjective opinion of a handful of people, most of them with no musical studies whatsoever, but only opera admirers hired by some publications;

It is clear that the other opera lovers, who are not hired by any publication, have opinions cherished by the soprano, on condition that they start crying when they hear her voice. Like Solti, who auditioned her for Violetta Valéry, James Levine listening to her voice for the Metropolitan, Royal Opera House chorus during the rehearsals, and, generally, anyone exposed to her voice for the first time. Except the case when they fall to their knees, such as Meryl Streep when they first met and when she declared that, if she had to start all over again, she would like to become an opera singer. Jonas Kaufmann is touched by the soprano-fairy’s magic wand and owes her his career: after she discovers him on a DVD with an obscure baroque opera (Paisiello – Nina), he is invited to sing with her La traviata, at the Met. Last but no least, with Maria Callas „we were in fact . . . colleagues. We shared the same label”, but also „she may not have had the best voice in the history of opera and […] I am not a fan”. The endless self-flattering made Matthew Sigman write a very severe review in Opera News.

As for the rest, Angela Gheorghiu meticulously describes the contexts for different gala concerts, where she sang with Sting, or with Vangelis, in front of queen X or president Y, in honor of Grace Bumbry or to commemorate Pavarotti. But she completely forgets to speak about CDs such as Carmen (where her vocal technique and even the characterization of the role seemed to me more than borrowed, but even copied from her „colleague” Callas), Il trovatore, Manon, Werther, L’amico Fritz, Fedora… Or La rondine, issued in 1997 and receiving several distinctions, mainly for the fact that it drew the public attention to this forgotten opera by Puccini. Peter Gelb mentions this in his insert in the book, but the soprano does not answer.

We will not comment the private life aspects, but Roberto Alagna is extensively criticised in these memoirs, without many clear arguments. And, even more pitiful, Angela Gheorghiu insists on listing all the incidents with the opera managers, scandals that delighted the international media and gave them nicknames such as „the Ceausescus” or  „Opera’s Bonnie & Clyde”. It is obvious that, in all these stories, the conclusion is the same: Angela Gheorghiu is not to blame, everything was a misunderstanding, she left the discussions before the incidents happened, it was all Roberto’s fault. And, of course, the book could not have missed the eternal lamento: the diva has never sung at Bucharest National Opera, even though she has been invited, still, singing Hanna Glawary seemed to her a highly insolent proposal. Well, Renée Fleming had a different opinion when she sang the part at the Metropolitan, but Angela Gheorghiu’s opinion of the operetta seems misplaced. We might have to accept that she will always refuse to sing at the BNO, at least while international contracts are still in place. And not a word about the contract with Bucharest City Hall, that became a public scandal when the media discovered she had received 150.000 euros for a concert. The same complete silence about her involvement in the scandal of BNO ballet.

From ingenuity to commercial product placement, A Life for Art manages to completely grasp the diva side, to the detriment of the great artist that was Angela Gheorghiu: with extraordinary moments, whose memories move us even today, with lies, whims, disappoinments, and with a lot of self-sufficiency and lack of modesty. It is difficult for me to recommend this book, as it is rather expensive (137,99 RON on iTunes, or 35,67$ de la Kindle) and you will have to read it in English.