★★★★☆ Romanian Diva shows Sydney exactly why she’s where she is today.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
October 8, 2015

Superstar Romanian Diva Angela Gheorghiu has been a fixture on world stages from Milan to the Met for well over 20 years now and counting. Her recordings are widely respected, her life occasionally makes the tabloids, and yet she has never set foot on Terra Australis. Last night at the Sydney Opera House she put that right with a programme of the familiar and the less-so that gave ample demonstration of the talents that have put and kept her at the top of her profession for a quarter century.

First of all, the voice. Gheorghiu is possessed of a magnificent, warm instrument, ample though not massive, and with secure, exciting top notes. This she wields with considerable sensitivity and it’s probably fair to say that in the French Romantic repertoire and the Italian verismo she has no betters. At full throttle she’s thrilling, the upper middle and above proving refreshingly free from strain and any sign of wobble. Her diction is good, too, enabling her to communicate with more than tone and body language alone.

Her French offerings ranged from an impassioned rendition of the somewhat overrated Adieu notre petite table from Massenet’s Manon to the same composer’s greatly underrated Pleurez mes yeux from Le Cid, one of those arias that flow over you like a rare honey and that show Gheorghiu’s voice at its very best. She also gave a textbook rendition of Carmen’s Habanera, an easy ride perhaps for a soprano but sung with aplomb and showing her adept at sensitive register changes that reveal a decent lower range. Sporting a sumptuous grey silk taffeta ball gown with a hint of Kiss of the Spider Woman, she was every inch the Diva, blowing kisses to the enthusiastic crowd, clutching her (imaginary) pearls and allowing her musical accomplices the occasional kiss of the regal hand.

Unlike Renee Fleming, whose recent Sydney outing was piano only, Gheorghiu came with orchestra in tow – in this case the excellent Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, let out of their usual dungeon for the night – and conducted by the soprano’s fellow countryman Tiberiu Soare. Whether in the Act IV Prelude from Carmen or the Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut (which fielded some lovely solos on cello, viola and from associate concertmaster Huy-Nguyen Bui on violin), they offered their own star turn and proved sensitive accompanists as well. The second half of Enescu’s First Romanian Rhapsody was a toe-tapping, exhilerating whirl with sterling work from flute and piccolo, its false first ending hilariously catching out that annoying man who always insists on being first in with his raucous “bravi!” – you know him, he’s at every celebrity concert…

But perhaps the highlights of the evening were the Italian arias – Butterfly’s Un bel di, Tosca’s Vissi d’arte and Manon Lescaut’s Sola perduta, abbandonata. These are prime Gheorghiu territory and she embodies these archetypal Puccinian heroines to the manor born. Her Butterfly (hair back and changed into a figure-hugging black, backless number complete with sparkles) embraced the ebb and flow of the vocal line to perfection (despite beginning a fraction below the note) and her signature Tosca was sublime (a sneaky extra costume change into a cerise silk full-length gown) crowned with a spine-tingling B Flat.

Amidst all the praise it seems surly to cavil but there were a few frustrations. The constant toing and froing of soloist and conductor tended to hold up the flow (a problem at Jonas Kaufmann’s concert last year as well) and why choose to start with Handel’s Lascia ch’io pianga? Early music isn’t Gheorghiu’s forte and she sounded matronly and occasionally below the note. It was also surprising how many arias required the use of music. You might understand it for something from Le Cid, but for standards like the two Manon arias and Rusalka’s Song to the Moon? With ticket prices topping out at $300 you expect a bit more prep time to have been put in.

That aside, this was a thoroughly enjoyable recital that offered four encores (though three of them were listed on the programme). Granada was perhaps an unusual choice but it came off well, less so the “naughty” Romanian number, which involved a lot of jiggling but was rather lost in translation. And if Gheorghiu brought nothing special to I Could Have Danced All Night, she certainly did when it came to a glorious O mio babbino caro with ravishing piano top that set the seal on a grand night for singing.

Angela Gheorghiu sings at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on October 13.

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