English Dances Opus 27 (3/4) Malcolm Arnold
“If Puccini were here, alive today, I would be in love with him. I just know it!” says Angela Gheorghiu. The acclaimed Romanian soprano is certainly one of the Italian composer’s biggest champions and one of the greatest exponents of his operatic roles – the dark, liquid, expressive quality of her sound being perfectly suited to Puccini’s soaring, emotional music.
Puccini has even brought Gheorghiu real-life romance – she met her husband, the French-Italian tenor Roberto Alagna, when they played opposite each other as Mimì and Rodolfo in La Bohème back in 1994. They married in 1996 and have never looked back.
Since then they have become opera’s ultimate golden couple, as notorious for their reported demands (director Jonathan Miller once dubbed them “The Bonnie and Clyde of opera”) as they are fêted for the seamless blend of their voices and twin star quality. They seem to attract increasingly outrageous press speculation, like moths to Mimì’s candle.
Gheorghiu is serenely unconcerned with any of this, however, when I manage to sneak in some interview time with her between sessions on a sweltering summer’s day in Rome. She is recording a Puccini role she’s never performed on the stage, Madama Butterfly, with conductor Antonio Pappano.
Does she feel she was born to sing Puccini?
“I was born to sing,” she says simply. “But for each composer you need to have the right colour in your voice. It’s like having a talent for something. For me, Puccini is not a far stretch at all. As you can hear!”
Her voice is indeed unique. She has a warm, distinctive lyric sound that has enough power (known as spinto – literally Italian for “pushed”) to cut through the orchestra. But she also possesses the agility and stratospheric high notes needed for such taxing roles as Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata. It was this opera that launched her on her way to stardom in 1994 in the now-legendary Covent Garden production conducted by Georg Solti.
“Everyone needs a good start, a benediction, a little touch from someone who has an important word to say,” she tells me.
“Georg’s presence there was the right moment at the right time. It was fresh because he was conducting La Traviata for the first time and I was singing the role for the first time and it created magic.”
She adds, “We are all after success – a star. But the most difficult thing is to stay with this star, and keep it, and live with it.”
It’s a surprising comment because Gheorghiu exudes absolute, unshakeable confidence in her ability and her place as the top lyric soprano of our time; even 14 years after her spectacular debut, she shows no concerns about being toppled from her pedestal by any young upstarts. But then, she is in her vocal prime, at 43, having chosen her repertoire carefully. Added to that, she still has all the good looks that contribute to her star quality.
This package of voice and glamour is one that consistently draws comparison to Maria Callas. Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who herself has triumphed as Violetta, is one of the latest generation of dark-haired, sloe-eyed beauties to have the “New Callas” sign hung around her neck.
When I ask Gheorghiu what she feels about this, she snorts sarcastically: “The poor girl.”
But then she giggles. “I know,” she beams, tapping me conspiratorially on the shoulder. “Tell everybody I am blonde! Yes, that would be so funny!”
There’s a famous anecdote about her refusal to wear a blonde wig in a New York production of Bizet’s Carmen where she sang girl-next-door Micaela, who is often portrayed as a blonde foil to the gypsy Carmen. I wonder if she’s slyly referring to that.
“Saying ‘Yes’ in the operatic world is more difficult than saying ‘No’,” she explains. “It’s very important to have the right result on stage. If we don’t have an agreement I prefer to fly away! But it is because I am responsible for my performance and careful about all the details – I want to know I have the right producer, costume, notes, everything.
“Because when the performance starts it is me alone on the stage. The producer can hide away, or not watch, or be doing something else, but it is my responsibility on the stage. So I am not afraid to say no. I am not shy.”
And does Gheorghiu ever tire of this never-ending quest for absolute perfection?
“When I am unhappy or feel negativity around me it is like there is a strange lump in my throat. My instrument is my whole body so I need to take care of myself and what is around me. But do I ever get tired of it? Never. Never. It is like a ritual and I am a slave to it. I was born to do this – born to sing.”