CD Review – Homage to Maria Callas (Angela Gheorghiu, Marco Armiliato)

I’ve also decided to post my thoughts on CDs and DVDs – mostly new releases, but also some older recordings in my collection that I feel are particularly interesting or worth rehearing. Angela Gheorghiu’s first recital disc in years was released last November, and is a collection of arias, some expected, some not. She sings well throughout the disc, but I can’t help feeling that it would have been much better without the whole Callas-worship aspect.

Callas certainly had a great impact on opera and is one of the most well-known singers in the last century. However, every soprano who acts decently and is vaguely glamorous is instantly compared to Callas and many singers are pressured to push their voices into roles that are too heavy. Gheorghiu has always preserved her voice very well and, apart from Tosca, stuck to a very safe repertoire, but there are some frankly bizarre repertoire choices on this disc. The only reasoning I could come up with is that Gheorghiu wanted to record a recital of verismo arias (ones that Callas had also recorded), and EMI decided to market it as a homage to Callas. Why else would Gheorghiu possibly want to record “Dei tuoi figli” or “Col sorriso d’innocenza”? To be fair, she pulls those two arias off, but they really do not show her to her best advantage. Honestly, only three roles on this disc (Violetta, Medea, and Imogene) were roles associated with Callas, and although Callas’ “La mamma morta” is justly famous, it was only a role she performed once on stage.

The disc starts with Mimi’s “Donde lieta” from Act III of La Boheme, an opera that Gheorghiu performed often early in her career. Thankfully, she does not treat this aria as a self-pitying, over-the-top scene and instead, sings it with restraint and a sense of acceptance. Something I like about this recording is how she does not overindulge herself in her admittedly beautiful voice and go for cheap effects, which is lovely in the smaller-scale verismo arias Gheorghiu sings. Her “Ebben, ne andro lontana”, “Stridono Lassu”, and “Poveri Fiori” are similarly lovely and musical. The only verismo aria that pushes her voice is Cilea’s “La Mamma Morta”, but even that cannot be counted as a failure in any way. She performs the aria in a quiet but intense manner and emphasizes that despite everything, Maddalena is really just a young girl. However, I missed the sheer volume that singers like Callas or Millo can provide towards the end of the aria. She then travels to the opposite end of the Italian opera spectrum and sings two bel canto (-ish) arias: Bellini’s “Col sorriso d’innocenza” and Verdi’s “Ah fors’e lui…Sempre Libera”. The former is probably the weakest selection on the disc – although she hits all the notes in a rather bumpy way, she simply does not have the technique to use the coloratura as an expressive device as Callas so memorably did. The Traviata is much stronger, and her voice is admirably fresh almost 20 years after her famous Covent Garden debut in the role. “Sempre Libera” is taken at an insane pace more appropriate to Sutherland than a singer with Tosca in her active repertoire, but a few messy runs aside, conveys the Violetta’s hysteria convincingly.

The rest of the disc is filled with French arias, mainly falcon roles that suited late Callas’ voice very well. The only purely soprano role is Gounod’s Marguerite, and Gheorghiu sings Marguerite’s “Dieu, que de bijoux” very well, even incorporating a solid trill. Her Dalila is surprisingly solid for a soprano well-known to have a rather weak lower register, and she takes the “Ah, reponds a ma tendresse” line in one breath as Callas did. Her dark tone contributes to the overall seductive nature of the aria. Gheorghiu also sings Carmen’s Habanera, and after hearing this recording, I am relieved that she has decided against performing the role on stage. She tries to amp up her lower register by using some sort of weird chest voice, and the result is not particularly attractive and also ruins her diction. Her Medea (originally a French opera) is also not comfortable, although instead I felt that the aria was too high for her voice. The repeated high As on “Pieta” towards the end all sound stretched, and she barely hits the B-flats as well. However, her phrasing and musicality are fascinating as always, and a nice contrast to the usual Wagnerian interpretations. “Le Cid” is the only somewhat rare opera in this recital, and although Chimene is a role that is far too heavy and low for Gheorghiu, she makes a great case for a big modern revival. Perhaps the orchestration is lighter, but here she manages to ride the ensembles in way that she could not in “La Mamma Morta” or “Dei tuoi figli” and the result is very satisfying.

Marco Armiliato and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra provide excellent and sensitive accompaniment, and adapt their sound well to the diverse musical periods represented in the recording. Overall, a highly rewarding recording of a very musical artist, but I wish that EMI had not insisted on the Callas connection.


3 thoughts on “CD Review – Homage to Maria Callas (Angela Gheorghiu, Marco Armiliato)

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