15 December 2017

CD REVIEW: A. Boito, S. Donaudy, U. Giordano, R. Leoncavallo, P. Mascagni, A. Mascheroni, A. Ponchielli, G. Puccini, & L. Refice — ETERNAMENTE – The Verismo Album (Angela Gheorghiu, soprano; Warner Classics 0190295780241)

IN REVIEW: Angela Gheorghiu - ETERNAMENTE (Warner Classics 0190295780241)ARRIGO BOITO (1842 – 1918), STEPHANO DONAUDY (1879 – 1925), UMBERTO GIORDANO (1867 – 1948), RUGGERO LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1919), PIETRO MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945), ANGELO MASCHERONI (1855 – 1905), AMILCARE PONCHIELLI (1834 – 1886), GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924), and LICINIO REFICE (1883 – 1954): Eternamente – The Verismo AlbumAngela Gheorghiu (soprano); Joseph Calleja (tenor), Richard Novák (bass), Emmanuel von Oeyen (speaker); Pražský filharmonický sbor (Prague Philharmonic Choir); PKF – Prague Philharmonia; Emmanuel Villaume, conductor [Recorded in Smetana Hall, Municipal House, Prague, Czech Republic, on 22 – 24 November and 6, 7, 9, and 10 December 2016 (Gheorghiu) and in Temple Studios, Mistra, Malta, on 10 March 2017 (Calleja); Warner Classics 0190295780241; 1 CD, 60:00; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

There is an inherent irony in the concept of verismo that not even the most ardent opera lover can deny. However powerfully it can manipulate listeners’ emotions, opera is not truly realistic: whether the music at hand is the sparse arioso of Monteverdi or the lush melodic effusion of Richard Strauss, ordinary people do not course through their daily lives in progressions of recitatives, arias, and ensembles. Still, there is a magnetism in opera that can only be attributed to connections among music, the artists who perform it, and the audiences who hear it.

The international career of Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu was catapulted from great promise to established stardom by such a connection: making her rôle début as Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at London’s Royal Opera House in a 1994 production conducted by Sir Georg Solti, the young singer from Adjud refined the connection between Verdi’s suffering heroine and modern listeners. On stage and on disc, Gheorghiu has subsequently drawn audiences closer to music spanning a wide repertory. From the time of her Metropolitan Opera début as Mimì in La bohème on 4 December 1993 [her Musetta on that auspicious evening was Carol Neblett (1946 – 2017), to whose memory this review is dedicated] , the music of Puccini has figured prominently in Gheorghiu’s career, but the works of Puccini’s contemporaries have remained little-explored territory. With Eternamente, this long-anticipated Warner Classics release, Gheorghiu extends the mastery of her characterizations of Violetta and Mimì to the tempestuous heroines of verismo. Some degree of suspension of disbelief is perhaps required to take the passions of the music on this disc at face value, but appreciation of Gheorghiu’s singing, here wholly dedicated to the music’s dramatic impulses, requires no compromises.

Expertly supported by stylish playing by the PKF – Prague Philharmonia and idiomatic, mostly sympathetic conducting by Emmanuel Villaume, Gheorghiu is rightly the central focus of every selection on the disc, grasping the histrionic reigns with the authority of an operatic Sarah Bernhardt. Whether by circumstance, design, or a blend thereof, there is a vein of roughness in the soprano’s vocalism on this disc that lends urgency to her performances of these demanding pieces. Villaume is most effective when highlighting the lyricism that lurks in much of the music, but he is too savvy a musician to linger over moments of repose at the expense of momentum. He and Gheorghiu occasionally seem to disagree about the punctuation of musical paragraphs, perhaps a result of multiple takes in the recording process, but their collaboration benefits from these differences: in moments of discord, the antiseptic polish of the recording studio is overwhelmed by the thrillingly pungent aroma of theatrical greasepaint.

Eternamente’s opening sequence offers three excerpts from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, the score cited by many musicologists as the foundation upon which verismo was built. Prefaced by the Prague Philharmonic Choir’s glorious performance of the ‘Regina cœli,’ both immaculate of ensemble and wholly credible as the en masse effusion of a volatile Sicilian community, Gheorghiu’s account of Santuzza’s ‘Voi lo sapete, o mamma’ is equally defeated and defiant, the character exasperated and exhausted by her predicament. The tessitura of Santuzza’s music is not altogether comfortable for Gheorghiu, but she holds nothing back in her traversal of the romanza, launching the top As with abandon.

Those who supervised the making and release of this disc are to be praised for the candid disclosure of the fact that Gheorghiu’s and Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja’s vocals were not recorded in the same place or at the same time, a reality that in the cases of many other recordings has not been disclosed, however audible it may be. On the whole, there are few signs of Calleja’s contributions having been recorded separately and electronically melded with Gheorghiu’s singing in their performance of the exhilarating duet for Santuzza and Turiddu. Amazement resounds in Calleja’s voicing of ‘Tu qui, Santuzza,’ answered by the growing desperation evinced by Gheorghiu’s delivery of Santuzza’s lines. Calleja’s timbre and vocal amplitude are light for Turiddu, but the tenor capitalizes on the advantages of studio recording, successfully animating the character without forcing the voice. Even without the benefit of face-to-face interaction, Gheorghiu and Calleja compellingly enact the parlous contest between the ill-fated lovers.

Mascagni quipped that, the widespread popularity of Cavalleria rusticana having overshadowed his later, arguably better work, he was crowned before he was king. Though the progress of his own career was quite different from that of his colleague’s, Ruggero Leoncavallo might have expressed similar sentiments about the shadow cast by the popularity of his Pagliacci over the other high-quality scores that he produced. It is its rivalry with Puccini’s better-known setting that has prompted occasional interest in Leoncavallo’s La bohème during the past century, but Leoncavallo’s opera is both in some ways the more faithful adaptation of Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de la bohème and a beautifully-crafted, touching work in its own right. Her singing of ‘Ed ora conoscetela’ on this disc imparts that Gheorghiu might prove to be an unusually persuasive advocate for Leoncavallo’s Mimì. The character’s resilience is apparent in this performance of her music, the singer’s sable timbre lending Mimì the world-weary grandeur of a Slavic heroine. Fleana’s ‘Tagliami! Abbruciami!’ from Leoncavallo’s seldom-performed Zingari also proves to be a good fit for Gheorghiu’s vocal estate: though the voice is no longer as pliant as it was when she charmed audiences as Adina in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, the darker colorations now at the singer’s command are employed with sagacity in these performances of Leoncavallo’s music.

The name part in Tosca and Magda in La rondine are Puccini rôles with which Gheorghiu is thoroughly acquainted, but she approaches these ladies’ arias that are included on Eternamente with laudable spontaneity. She sings Tosca’s ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore’ fervently, her phrasing and ascent to the top B♭ confident and even coarse, intimating that the proximity of a man such as Scarpia taints her noble sentiments with vulgarity. Magda’s ‘Parigi! È la città dei desideri’ is delivered with special sensitivity, the nuances of the character’s dramatic profile clearly of personal significance to Gheorghiu. In both of these selections, the soprano exposes the dualities of the women she briefly portrays, delicacy and determination competing for dominance.

The exquisite ‘Spunta l’aurora pallida’ from Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele is forthrightly sung by Gheorghiu, her focused articulations of Margherita’s exhortations complemented by renowned bass Richard Novák’s impactful enunciation of the title character’s lines and more fine work by the Prague Philharmonic choristers. In Gheorghiu’s traversal of Stephana’s ‘No! se un pensier tortura’ from Umberto Giordano’s Siberia, the spirit of Rosina Storchio, the first Stephana, seems close at hand: Gheorghiu’s instinct for emoting through music is nowhere more skillfully deployed than in this music, in her performance of which suggestions of effort are transformed into expressions of the character’s complex, shifting emotions. Notes above the stave now require more calculated approaches than in past, but Gheorghiu artfully fuses vocal caution with dramatic abandon. Calleja is heard again—and again with total enjoyment—in the title character’s duet with Maddalena from Act Four of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, ‘Vicino a te s’acqueta.’ Here, the effects of the voices having been recorded separately are more noticeable. Ecstatically greeting death with negotiations of punishing tessitura in tandem is more dependent than hurling insults upon precision of ensemble, and a marginal lack of frisson is perceptible. Nevertheless, this is high-octane singing by shrewd, stylish artists, and the spirit of the scene is emphatically imparted.

Several of the most intriguing minutes of Eternamente are devoted to a performance of the title character’s Shakespearean monologue ‘Suicidio! In questi fieri momenti’ from Act Four of Amilcare Ponchielli’s La gioconda. As in the music from Tosca and, to a slightly lesser extent, Andrea Chénier, the principal standard by which Gheorghiu’s navigation of the music is measured is Callas’s handling of the scene. In this context, however, the models that the Romanian soprano’s singing most readily brings to mind are those of Anita Corridori and Milka Stojanović, both uncommonly effective interpreters of Gioconda. Gheorghiu shares with Corridori a bluntness of attack that lends her portrayal raw power, but, like Stojanović, she rounds the sharp edges of her characterization with a tempering dose of decency. Musically, Gheorghiu traverses the scene with less effort than some very memorable Giocondas have expended, but this is a discernibly studio-bound reading, ever admirable but never remarkable.

The products of the excursions of masters of verismo into the realm of Art Song are infrequent destinations in singers’ recital journeys, making the inclusion of three songs, all performed here using tasteful orchestrations by Andrea Tudor, a notable novelty. Stefano Donaudy’s ‘O del mio amato ben’ is the vehicle for some of Gheorghiu’s most sincere and attractive singing on this disc, the melodic line spun with elegant phrasing and handsome tone. Though he is little remembered today, the ordained priest Refice scored a tremendous success with his opera Cecilia, premièred in Rome in 1934 with Claudia Muzio in the title rôle. It was whilst supervising rehearsals for a production of the opera mounted for Renata Tebaldi two decades later in Rio de Janeiro that Refice died, and Cecilia was later espoused by another celebrated mistress of verismo, Renata Scotto. Were she ever to have an opportunity to sing the title rôle in full, Gheorghiu would surely be a worthy heiress to the Cecilia mantle of Muzio, Tebaldi, and Scotto, and she here establishes herself as a puissant advocate for the composer’s music with her refined, reflective voicing of Refice’s song ‘Ombra di nube.’ It is from Angelo Mascheroni’s ‘Eternamente’ that this release takes its name, and Gheorghiu’s singing of the piece exudes an aura of heightened emotional engagement, aptly melodramatic but unexaggerated. Using the text as her blueprint, she builds an impressive musical edifice on the proper scale, the slow simmer of the vocal line brought to a boil by the soprano’s performance. The singing of Lieder has not been a cornerstone of Gheorghiu’s career to date, but her accounts of the songs on Eternamente are evidence of the broad compass of her interpretive gifts.

Some of the sopranos for whom Puccini, Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Giordano, and their contemporaries wrote music were among the most renowned operatic personalities of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, and Angela Gheorghiu is unquestionably one of their best-qualified successors. The foremost practitioner of authentic verismo, the Italian soprano Magda Olivero, once remarked that ‘if one just sings, without putting in any heart or soul, it remains just beautiful singing, and not a soul that sings.’ The heart and soul of which Olivero spoke are the qualities that separate a true prima donna from the altre donne. They are also the qualities that have defined Angela Gheorghiu’s career. With Eternamente, she expands both her own and listeners’ sensibilities by venturing into neglected niches of verismo repertory. Propelled by an artist of Gheorghiu’s abilities, might not overlooked verismo scores prove just as deserving of rediscovery as the bevies of Baroque and bel canto works revived in recent years?