Angela Gheorghiu, the Romanian diva, has a new CD, and it is a recital CD — live, too. The recital took place at La Scala, Milan, on April 3, 2006. This was her Scala debut, no less. She didn't debut as Mimì (in "La Bohème"), as Violetta (in "La Traviata"), or as Adina (in "The Elixir of Love"). She debuted with a recital, a rare happening, and an honor.
Her program was a lightish one, almost a pops program: This is the sort of recital she tends to give. In these pages, I reviewed such a recital from Salzburg several years ago. It was an excellent one, too, the nature of the repertoire aside. Excellence is excellence, whether you're singing " Winterreise" or "Plaisir d'amour."
On the new CD (EMI Classics), Ms. Gheorghiu shows all her gifts, or many of them. The voice is gorgeous, and not only gorgeous, but interesting, variable, adaptable. The technique is a marvel: There's nothing Ms. Gheorghiu can't do, and she seems to do it without effort. Perhaps most important, she is loaded with musical smarts. Ms. Gheorghiu has an ability that really can't be acquired — you've either got it or you don't.
The recital is divided into four sections, basically, beginning with Baroque, or Baroque-ish, songs. The first is the aforementioned "Plaisir d'amour" — that eternal hit by Martini. Ms. Gheorghiu also sings "Se tu m'ami," with which Elisabeth Schwarzkopf used to begin a recital or two. Formerly, we attributed this song to Pergolesi; now we think that a much later composer, Alessandro Parisotti, concocted it, passing it off as the creation of his musical forefather.
Then Ms. Gheorghiu moves into the triumvirate of Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi. You should hear the soprano's lovely, lyrical lines. And she knows how to convey urgency without breathiness. By Bellini, we have the famous "Malinconia, ninfa gentile," and by Verdi, we have such songs as "Stornello."
Then we get a trio of French songs, starting with Gounod's enchanting "Sérénade." Do you perhaps remember how dearly the soprano Arleen Auger used to sing it? Later, we have Massenet's famous "Elégie." Do you remember how Art Tatum did this up, jazz style? That was really dazzling, and ingenious (typical Tatum).
In recital, singers have liked to offer music from their homelands, and Angela Gheorghiu is no exception. She sings a full six Romanian songs — but not "Muzica?," one of her signatures. It's always good to hear Ms. Gheorghiu sing the Romanian rep, in part because the language is so interesting to hear — an attractive tongue, for singing.
For the adulatory Scala audience, she sings three encores, beginning with "'A vucchella." This is one of the most affecting of all Neapolitan songs, and, though it sounds like a folk song, it actually has a composer: Tosti. Ms. Gheorghiu sings it very, very well — affectingly indeed. (Another fine singer of this song, incidentally, is her husband: the French-Italian tenor Roberto Alagna.)
After her Tosti, Ms. Gheorghiu goes in for a little Lerner & Loewe. Yes, she sings "I Could Have Danced All Night," just as another soprano, Birgit Nilsson, used to do (or at least did once — famously). And Ms. Gheorghiu sings this song absolutely smashingly: with charm, effervescence, and gaiety. You'll be glad to know that, like Nilsson before her, she goes up for a high C at the end. And it is glorious.
She closes the evening with "O mio babbino caro," Puccini's hit aria from "Gianni Schicchi." They'll never hackney this perfect number. And Ms. Gheorghiu may be the world's number-one exponent of it right now. But she doesn't do her best with it on this disc: She is uncharacteristically low — flat — all through. But it's not too shabby. And at least we know, from these flat high notes, that they didn't doctor the disc much, if at all.
Accompanying this recital at the keyboard, by the way, is Jeff Cohen — and he has some rough moments. In these moments, he is clumsy, harsh, and inaccurate. He is also too loud (and you remember the title of the accompanist Gerald Moore's memoir: "Am I Too Loud?") Otherwise, he does the job.
I don't say that La Gheorghiu had her best night ever, on April 3, 2006. But she still sings terribly well — and it's good to have a Gheorghiu recital preserved on disc. She may not provide the intellectual satisfaction of, say, a Fischer-Dieskau Lieberabend. But, you know? A Gheorghiu recital has its own virtues, mainly beauty, musicality, and charm that won't quit. As I often say, the world can be very, very snarky about Angela Gheorghiu. I'm talking about the chatroom world, the opera-gossip world, the kingdom of the snarks. She is the target of considerable resentment and envy. But she seems oblivious, thank heaven — and she is a flat-out superb singer. The talent she has cannot be bought, at any price (though one may buy her CDs).
Last winter, I happened to be talking to a well-known soprano, and the subject of Ms. Gheorghiu came up. I noted how nasty people can be about her. And this soprano looked at me and said, "I don't care what the know-nothings say. As far as I'm concerned, Angela Gheorghiu is the best singer — certainly the best opera performer — in the world." This may not be your opinion, and it's not mine. But it's a valid one.