Friday, October 16, 2015

Going gaga over Gheorghiu at Hamer Hall, Melbourne

Angela Gheorghiu and Tiberiu Soare
For any vocal artist, preparations including deep breathing, relaxation of the muscles, adequate rest and an understanding of the work would be expected before a performance. Readying for the likes of Romanian soprano sensation Angela Gheorghiu, an audience might also benefit by similar preparations, in order to revel in the best possible experience. The dividends would pay off, for Gheorghiu's artistry is not to be taken halfheartedly.

In Australia recently for the first time to give three recitals, Gheorghiu made a striking entrance on Melbourne's Hamer Hall stage after two excerpts from Händel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks". In a soft powdery pink pleated gown, her glistening black hair spun tightly, her deportment was regal. But when Romanian conductor Tiberiu Soare lifted his arms to release the first bars of music alongside her, I sensed unease in the eyes and in her voice as she slipped into her opening aria, "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Händel's Rinaldo. Within seconds, her hand made hesitant reaches to the music stand. Soon after, her heels got caught under the train of her gown and, for a while, she fidgeted with her shawl. It was not the supremely confident diva I had seen perform at some of the world's most famous opera houses. Seemingly locked out of focus, Angela Gheorghiu appeared uncharacteristically distracted.

It was Gheorghiu's third and final concert and her only Melbourne appearance after two concerts at the Sydney Opera House, less than a week after making the long journey across half the world's time zones. Her opening said more about the demands of a diva than the pathos of her aria. It may not have helped that she was facing an audience of around 1300 in the magnificence of a concert hall that seats close to 2500. I felt Melbourne had failed her.

Following, in Jules Massenet's "Adieu notre petite table" from Manon, Gheorghiu showed off a beautifully supported pianissimo, a firmly extended voice and exposed a smashing lower register.

The recital's neatly structured program of paired arias were separated by pleasing orchestral pieces, given overall well-worked musicianship from the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. Concentrating on French Romantic and Italian verismo repertoire, the diva's bread and butter was on offer. Whipping it into a magic would eventually come.

Returning to the stage with a different shawl after the orchestral "Intermezzo" from Puccini's Manon Lescaut, Gheorghiu's profound feeling for the text showed in "Pleurez mes yeux" from Massenet's Le Cid. Occasional erratic breathing transitions impacted the fluidity but the voice took strident flight and opened up generously in the night's first part final aria, "Song to the Moon" from Antonin Dvořák's  Rusalka with deep luscious chesty strength, a seamless middle register and strong highs. The charismatic shifting colours, immense depth and striking range characteristic of Gheorghiu's voice was now blooming on stage. 

Angela Gheorghiu
After interval, the energetic orchestral  oomph of the "Aragonaise" from Bizet's Carmen set a new pace. Gheorghiu emerged more relaxed, brimming with smiles. In a plush reddy-pink gown and hair loose, an assured and confident voice then melted the moment in "Un bel di vedremo" from Puccini's Madama Butterfly. In "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen, a supremely eloquent dance on the vocal line was matched by the seductress' dance around the conductor's podium, Soare's eyes becoming increasingly tricked by her whereabouts and Gheorghiu becoming less and less attached to the music stand. Signing off the two aria progression with a wide outstretched wave, Gheorghiu accelerated to the stars.

After the night's buzzing orchestral highlight, George Enescu's "Romanian Rhapsody op.11 nr.1 in A Major", Gheorghiu returned in a sleek black gown featuring an extravagant ruffled equine-like mane that formed the gown's rear. The glamorous show of various costume changes seemed to fire up an increasingly compelling performance.

The spell-binding beauty of Gheorghiu's complete artistry was to come with two final Puccini arias, "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca followed by "Sola perduta, abbandonata" from Manon Lescaut, the first given full dramatic deployment, the latter, and final aria of the program, explosive emotional force.

Three encores followed, a pure Puccini superlative rendition of "O mio babbino caro" from Gianni Schicchi, a tender folk-style Romanian a capella that seemed to reduce the hall's enormity to a salon, and concluding with a cheeky entrance to sing the zesty "Granada".

Gheorghiu achieved much this night. She more than satisfied an audience going gaga that had waited so long for the chance to see her on our stage. But above all, Gheorghiu demonstrated how the voice of art transcends life's rigorous demands for which no recording could ever capture.

Photographs courtesy of Angela Gheorghiu's website

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