Angela Gheorghiu Takes on Two Prima Donnas

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On the biography page of Angela Gheorghiu’s Web site, the reader learns that:

“Superstar Angela Gheorghiu, the most glamorous and gifted opera singer of our time, was born in the small Romanian town Adjud. From early childhood it was obvious that she will become a singer, her destiny was the music. She attended the Music School in Bucharest and graduated the National University of Music Bucharest, where she studied with the remarkable music teacher Mia Barbu. Ms. Gheorghiu’s magnificent voice and dazzling stage presence have established her as a unique international opera superstar.”

Who are we to disagree? Back in the infancy of this blog, seventy-two articles ago, I wrote a posting called The Diva (Part One). I called it Part One, knowing that the subject of The Diva is one I would return to. In fact, I said that it would be about Shirley Verrett and one day I shall fulfill that promise. I am your operatic Scheherazade, with many stories still to tell.

In the blog post about the diva, I posited that there is a notable difference between the Diva and the Prima Donna:

"In opera, a diva is that rare female singer whose talents, gifts and essence combine in special ways to transport the listener to sublime emotional states. She does this when she performs a role that suits her voice, temperament, musicianship and character. [The prima donna] is usually an artist of abundant gifts, and she knows it. She gets the prime dressing room, the top salary and expects that sort of cosseting that goes with being the star. A prima donna assoluta is that rare artist who achieves such extraordinary status due to her unmatched combination of skills, ability to sell tickets and create excitement in audiences."

It is possible for a singer to be both a prima donna and a diva. I think most opera lovers would agree that Montserrat Caballé, Maria Callas, Leontyne Price and Joan Sutherland all fit into both categories. Right now, I think we have a few prima donna divas bestriding the operatic landscape, but they are not necessarily perceived that way. This is more because of how audiences now relate to singers and opera than about the artists themselves.

Angela Gheorghiu is certainly a prima donna, one whose (shall we say) tenacity has given her considerable purchase on that title. For many audience members, she is also a diva. Gheorghiu has withdrawn, for various reasons, from important commitments at the Met, including La Traviata, Carmen, Roméo et Juliette and the upcoming new production of Faust, in which she was to sing Marguerite opposite Jonas Kaufmann in the title role and the bedeviling presence of René Pape. 

A Prima Donna’s Prima Donna

One measure of an artist’s appeal is how, despite her inconsistent attendance record, audiences clamor to see her more. New Yorkers are about to get their chance: Gheorghiu will sing at Carnegie Hall Tuesday night as Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, a delicious role for a prima donna and very well-suited to the Romanian soprano. The story is based on events from the real-life Adrienne Lecouvreur, the first lady (prima donna) of Paris’s theater world in the 18th century, admired by Voltaire and adored by many men. She loved (and was loved by) Count Maurice (Maurizio) of Saxony. Yet Adrienne was “show business” while Maurice was an aristocrat who was loved, in vain, by the Princess de Bouillon.

The Opera Orchestra of New York, whose audiences worship both prima donnas and divas, will lap up the cat fight that will ensue when Gheorghiu (playing the good but misunderstood prima donna) battles with Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili as the bad-girl princess over who gets to caress the tousled locks of Jonas Kaufmann’s Maurizio. Great casting all around!

Because the role does not have too many high notes, it has often been taken by older sopranos, who are not plausible in visual terms. Gheorghiu, in contrast, is more than plausible, whatever her age. A Google search for her date of birth only yields a “best guess” of September 7, 1965.  She cuts a glamorous figure and wears gowns and costumes with prima donna aplomb. Here she sings “Io son l’umile ancella” in which she describes herself as the humble servant of the creative genius that is the playwright. Audiences are expected to politely disagree because the prima donna who plays the role will not be anyone’s humble servant!

This opera has one of the greatest closing scenes of all. Adriana has inhaled the fragrance of a bouquet of flowers she believes was sent by Maurizio but in fact came from the jealous Princess of Bouillon, who laced them with a poison that slowly kills Adriana. Watch Gheorghiu and Kaufmann at Covent Garden in 2010.

Dark Shadows

Playing a prima donna onstage is one thing, but taking on the memory of the most famous prima donna of the 20th century, Maria Callas, is much more audacious. It is one thing for Cecilia Bartoli to record an album of music associated with Maria Malibran (1808-1836), who has no legacy of recordings. It was quite another to have Gheorghiu invite comparison with Callas (1923-1977), whose fiery mascaraed eyes still glower over Planet Opera even though she stopped singing around the time that Angela Gheorghiu might have been born.

A new album, Angela Gheorghiu: Homage to Maria Callas, has just been released by EMI, the same company that produced many of Callas’s greatest recordings. There is a lot to admire, and think about, in this recording. And much to criticize, especially because Gheorghiu is packaged in ways that do her no favors. She should muster her full prima donna dudgeon at whoever designed this recording’s booklet so that most of the notes are illegible in their tiny white letters on a mauve background.

What one thinks about in listening to the recording, which contains an appealing cross-section of repertory, is not that Angela Gheorghiu isn’t Maria Callas (no one is or ever will be), but that the intensity she brings to the music (though not always the text) is in short supply among today’s opera singers. In an era that seems to prefer singers who are cooler and “down-to-earth,” Gheorghiu stakes a claim for using the voice as a dramatic medium. In this regard, she follows the template of Callas and numerous other artists from not too long ago who sacrificed some tonal beauty to achieve more visceral impact.

What is disquieting is the promotional video created to cast Gheorghiu as “the defining diva of the 21st century.” We see her in a black t-shirt with red lips on it or in a dress with a leopard pattern. If this is intended to make her seem more accessible, it has the effect of making her less of a prima donna, which is central to her appeal. Madame Callas would never have worn those clothes.

In another video on the Web site of Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Gheorghiu sings a sort of duet with Callas in the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen.

The prototype of this kind of time-traveling duet is when Natalie Cole sang “Unforgettable” together with her late father, Nat King Cole. That video was successful because it evoked the lyrics of the song with beguiling sentimentality and great technology. 

By contrast, the Gheorghiu/Callas Habanera feels manufactured and less organic. While “Unforgettable” shows Natalie’s love and nostalgia for her father, the Angela/Maria video feels like a competition and the charismatic Callas, singing from the other world, triumphs. Watch her face, hands and eyes and then look at Gheorghiu’s more generic gestures while dressed in a glamorous gown.

In our modern world of opera, there is little room for the prima donna. They are capricious, hard to work with, often hard to live with. But they are never dull, they sell opera tickets, create excitement and discussion and memories. One should never use the ghost of an iconic artist as a marketing tool for a current one. If prima donnas are your thing, best to let Angela be Angela.