Angela Gheorghiu might be high-maintenance but she’s worth it
She is sometimes said to live up to the prima donna billing, but after a cautious start she shone at the NCH
Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu: has often been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Photograph: Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images
We have all met someone who behaves like a prima donna. Literally meaning “first lady”, a prima donna is the person who takes the leading female role in an opera.
As the always sober New Grove Dictionary explains, “Today the term is no longer exclusively associated with leading roles but may be used of any leading woman singer. It has also entered the general vocabulary as an expression for anyone (not necessarily a singer) who carries on in an outrageously egotistical manner.”
Diva – literally “goddess” – is another word that reminds us of the elevated position accorded to female singers, usually to sopranos. But, as with prima donna, this also has a slew of negative connotations.
Tantrums, unreasonable demands, and slews of cancellations are what the world seems to expect from a genuine prima donna. There’s an old joke about a famous soprano who takes out an advertisement in a trade journal to let everyone know that she is “still available for a limited number of cancellations” in the coming season.
In full control
Before directors achieved the levels of control they have in opera productions today, singers could call the shots. Nellie Melba (1861-1931), for whom the chef August Escoffier created Peach Melba and Melba toast, is said to have sent her maid to take her place at rehearsals in Covent Garden. The maid walked through the role, carrying the dress the singer would wear in front of her.
Adelina Patti (1843-1919) thought rehearsals tired the voice, and had contracts that freed her to stay away if she chose. She avoided them whenever possible and would send her manager or her maid to tell everyone where they needed to stand. The impresario Col James Henry Mapleson claimed Patti had a parrot who was trained to screech, “Cash! Cash!” whenever he entered the room.
Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu has often been in the news for all the wrong reasons, including conflicts with colleagues, cancellations, and allegations against her ex-husband Roberto Alagna.
However, making her second appearance at the National Concert Hall on Saturday, with tenor Calin Bratescu and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under Tiberiu Soare, Gheorghiu’s persona was all sweetness and light. She doesn’t command the immediate outpouring of emotion that Dublin audiences give to Cecilia Bartoli or Thomas Hampson, let alone what they gave to Suzanne Murphy for years with a heartiness no one else has come near. And though Gheorghiu smiled a lot and waved when she was leaving the stage between numbers, there was no hint of the kind of adoration that so many stars attract.
Her first half was disappointing. Gheorghiu turned 50 last year, and her voice, understandably, has lost some of its lustre. But her handling of arias by Cilea and Bizet was altogether too careful, sometimes like the musical equivalent of cautiously finding your way in poor light. And there were some unwelcome uncertainties of intonation. Bratescu’s contributions were coarse, as if the singer were putting his voice under a stress it could not easily bear.
But what a transformation an interval and a change of repertoire can make. In L’altra notte from Boito’s Mefistofele, in which the delusional Margherita laments the loss of her baby, failing to accept that she drowned it herself, Gheorghiu’s performance was deeply felt and vocally full-on, searing in its moments of great intensity.
When Bratescu returned, for E lucevan le stelle from Puccini’s Tosca, he too seemed to be right in the zone. The high standard was maintained in arias and duets by Puccini and Catalani and right through to the encores, which kept the audience happy for an extra 20 minutes or more.
People put up with divas because they can do things that other mortals can’t.
There were no issues of variability in Friday’s concert with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under Pietari Inkinen. The Finnish conductor opened with Seán Ó Riada’s Seoladh na nGamhan ( The Herding of the Calves), a pastorale written for the silver jubilee of the Cork Symphony Orchestra in 1959.
It is a pastoral that never seems quite sure of itself. There’s a textbook cor anglais solo, some frilly harp flourishes, some awkward dissonances to suggest darkening clouds. But the contrast doesn’t quite work; the piece doesn’t cohere.
Inkinen brought to the work a lightness of touch that helped hide some of the seams and brought to it a sense of flow. He may well be the first non-native conductor to tackle this music. His performance would certainly whet the appetite for his perspective on the other works in Ó Riada’s small orchestral output.
Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto has a kind of caustic jauntiness that always manages to keep a vein of sentimentality at bay. Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin handled the shifting moods easily and the technical demands fearlessly. His playing was incisively sculpted, urgent, but with full appreciation of the work’s dark wit.
In Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Suite, a work based on episodes from the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic, Inkinen was of course on home ground. The best-known movement of the suite is The Swan of Tuonela, which is often performed on its own. It was a rewarding experience to hear in its highly atmospheric whole, and the players of the NSO responded deftly to the conductor’s demands.