Angela Gheorghiu: "Homage to Maria Callas — Favourite Opera Arias"
Arias by Puccini, Gounod, Bellini, Leoncavallo, Saint-Saëns, Catalani, Bizet, Giordano, Cherubini, Massenet, Cilèa, Verdi. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, M. Armiliato. EMI 0843772
During Maria Callas's all-too-brief prime, the diva claimed to have no rivals: who else could offer her combination of technical, musical and interpretive prowess? When Callas's supremacy was compromised by her vocal decline — which sadly showed no signs of a reversal — the search was on for "the next Callas." Divas as diverse as Sutherland, Suliotis, Sills and Sass, along with countless others, were proposed as The Successor. This somewhat pointless exercise has invited Callas comparisons for half a century, whether warranted, invited or not. It is therefore a bit odd to encounter a current diva inviting comparisons willingly by releasing a collection of arias associated with her legendary predecessor. The selections comprise a cross-section of arias Callas performed principally in concert or in the recording studio; only four of the operas here (Il Pirata, Andrea Chénier, Medea and La Traviata) were part of Callas's opera-house repertoire. One imagines this offering was inspired by genuine admiration for Callas on the part of Gheorghiu, combined with EMI's desire to find an attractive "hook" with which to entice buyers in a dwindling market. Let's face it, Callas's records still sell.
Taken on its own merits, this CD has a good deal to offer. Like Callas, Gheorghiu can create vivid performances in a studio situation. The disc opens with a sensitively phrased "Donde lieta uscì," from La Bohème, in which the soprano offers a portrayal more vulnerable than her rather callous (no pun intended!) Mimì in the opera house. A vibrantly alive jewel song from Faust makes one regret all the more Gheorghiu's decision to withdraw from the Met's new production of Gounod's opera, despite some odd French vowels — particularly the "shwa"s — and trills that are only trill-ish.
Having only one bel canto excerpt in an homage to Callas seems peculiar, but much of that repertoire doesn't suit Gheorghiu's gifts. The soprano's choice of Bellini's ravishing "Col sorriso d'innocenza," from Il Pirata (shorn of its cabaletta), is stylistically alert and makes vocal sense. Gheorghiu is more at home in Nedda's "Stridono lassù," from Pagliacci, her tremulous vibrato lending sensuality to the recitative and urgency to the aria. As in the Faust excerpt, trills are approximate (somewhere Callas is disapprovingly shaking her head at that), but it's a wonderfully vivid performance, and Marco Armiliato's conducting of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra lends animated (and excellent) support.
Gheorghiu's voice is light for Dalila's "Mon coeur s'ouvre à toi voix." So was Callas's, but it had more inherent color. Like Callas, Gheorghiu impressively sings most of the descending lines on one breath, as written, but one wonders what Callas might have thought of the inclusion of the cheesy "concert ending" here, which she avoided on her recording. More mezzo-soprano repertoire comes in the form of Gheorghiu's playful habanera, although the soprano's tendency to disappear in the low register might render this performance less successful away from the microphone. (An electronically achieved "duet" of the aria with Callas and Gheorghiu was created by EMI but is not included on the disc. It is being made available online only.)
Catalani's Wally is a role Callas never sang complete, but her recording of the popular "Ebben? Ne andrò lontana" is one of her most celebrated. Gheorghiu's rendition of the same piece works very well, as does her take on Andrea Chénier's "La mamma morta," another piece that inspired one of Callas's most extraordinary renditions. The same cannot be said of Gheorghiu's "De tuoi figli," from Cherubini's Medea. This cruelly difficult role was surprisingly compatible vocally for Callas during her decade-long association with it. Gheorghiu sounds stretched and stressed; it's the one really questionable choice on the disc.
Callas's unique ability to reach expressive heights without a trace of excess, always within the vocal line, made her recording of "Pleurez mes yeux," from Le Cid, an introspective statement of one craving the release of tears. Gheorghiu's Chimène is more extroverted, as if she were bawling openly. That said, the Romanian soprano makes the aria her own in an exciting reading with a keen understanding of Massenet's theatrical flair. One of Gheorghiu's recent role assumptions is Cilèa's Adriana Lecouvreur, and she gives "Poveri fiori" a sensitive treatment.
The disc closes with Violetta's Act I scena from La Traviata, with tenor James Valenti cast as the offstage Alfredo. Gheoghiu is perhaps the most persuasive Violetta of our time. It's not necessary to complain that her coloratura in "Sempre libera" is no match for that of her virtuoso predecessor; everything else is superb — and one doesn't miss the high E-flat that Callas's pride always insisted upon, for better or worse. It's also nice to have both verses of the cavatina instead of only one, making the proportion of the piece feel right. Perhaps the way in which this current Violetta has made the role her own, in a manner entirely different from that of Callas, unintentionally justifies the entire "homage" gimmick by pointing up the pointlessness of comparison — or of looking for "the next Callas."
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