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Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu at the Metropolitan Opera. (MARTY SOHL/AP/Marty Sohl / AP)
Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu at the Metropolitan Opera. (MARTY SOHL/AP/Marty Sohl / AP)

Music

Gheorghiu turns up - and twirls a pretty tune Add to ...

The news is this: Angela Gheorghiu did show up for her performance with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra on Sunday night, the first stop in an eight-concert tour that takes her to Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on April 7 and on to Korea, Japan, China and Spain.

The glamorous Romanian soprano, whose personal life is often as operatic as her roles, makes regular headlines for last-minute cancellations - there is even an Internet site that takes bets on what she'll cancel next. Most recently, Gheorghiu called in sick for the Metropolitan Opera's run of Roméo et Juliette in March. Only days later she also backed out of an agreement to perform in the Met's production of Gounod's Faust scheduled for next fall, directed by Des McAnuff.

The only thing Faustian Gheorghiu sang on Sunday was Margherita's aria from Boito's Mefistofele, and it was the dramatic highlight in a hodgepodge program that generally stayed away from anything stronger than a broken heart. Gheorghiu's singing celebrated bel canto in whatever form it could find it, including a few pieces that didn't sound particularly effective when given the smooth and curvaceous delivery that turns listeners to mush in Puccini.

Handel's chestnut from Rinaldo, "Lascia ch'io pianga," was bland and under-etched; Schubert's "Ständchen," from Schwanengesang, sounded downright silly, not just because the orchestrated version of the accompaniment was so poor, but because Gheorghiu treated the words as if they were merely something to do with her mouth.

But audiences don't flock to hear Gheorghiu sing Schubert lieder or Handel arias, however prettily she twirls those tunes. The evening's true raisons d'être were arias from Dvorak's Rusalka, Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, Massenet's Chérubin and Catalani's La Wally.

What Gheorghiu can do with a 19th-century melody is akin to alchemy, for she seems to transform its constituent parts into something else altogether. For one, when Gheorghiu sings, the space between individual pitches disappears. It's as if the notes have been liquefied, each molecule joined to the next and set in motion according to its own particular law of viscosity. Her portamento seems as effortless as it is artful, and her line is so supple, her timing so elastic, that the melody almost breathes on its own. Her voice has been praised for its earthy beauty, but that may be a way of saying that it glows without brightness or edge, or that it encompasses shades of warmth and colour in the same way that the seasons do.

Gheorghiu's voice, despite some obvious insecurities on Sunday, strikes one as a natural wonder.

Gheorghiu's singing isn't unmannered, however. She has a diva's instinct for giving the audience what it desires, which is not necessarily what the song requires. Her rubato, for instance, is self-indulgent: The famous aria from La Wally lost its way, while her recalcitrant beat in the Puccini tested the music's logic and conductor Bramwell Tovey's considerable accompanying skill.

She also overacts, striking a different pose for every phrase, caressing the front rows with her gaze: One is charmed but not entirely convinced.

The VSO did its best not to sound like mere filler when Gheorghiu was not on stage, providing frothy ballet music from Gounod's Faust, some somnolent Gluck and some boisterous Verdi. Best of all was the gorgeous "Méditation" from Massenet's Thaïs: It turns out that VSO concertmaster Dale Barltrop can do everything with his violin that we admire so much in Gheorghiu's voice.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Angela Gheorghiu, soprano

  • Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bramwell Tovey
  • The Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver on Sunday
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