Angela Gheorghiu interview: the superstar soprano on love, tradition and the healing power of music
Angela Gheorghiu, queen of the great 19th-century Italian repertoire with its passionate arias and often heartbreaking tales, talks to Claudia Pritchard
Born in Romania now living in Switzerland, she has a special place in her heart for London, where she made here Covent Garden debut 25 years ago in Don Giovanni and La Bohème. 'My first trip to London was for an audition in 1980, when I was in my last year at the conservatoire in Bucharest.'
That was the beginning of a special relationship with the Royal Opera House, which resumes in January 2018 when she sings the title role in two of a total of 13 performances of Puccini’s Tosca; Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka and Austrian soprano Martina Serafin sing the others.
Floria Tosca is the singer who takes great risks for the love of painter Cavaradossi, and whose manifesto is her famous aria Vissi d’arte – 'I lived for art'. In this, Gheorghiu identifies with her completely. And the production, directed by Jonathan Kent, is lavish and traditional, which appeals to her.
‘Everything I’ve done, I wanted to put my stamp on it, but with all my respect for the composer and librettist.’ Well known for taking issue with outlandish requests from maverick directors, she is unashamed about doing things the old-fashioned way.
‘Old-fashioned is the sum of all the modernities in their own time,' she explains. 'Music from another time is the most precious thing we have in art.’ And she observes with disdain that whichever opera house she appears at, the same people are there – a worldwide travelling circus. ‘The opera production is not a fantasy for a director. All the companies have the same faces, a little group of directors all over the world.’
This inner circle tire of the works they see over and over again, rather than once every few years, or once in a lifetime, like a real audience. ‘They don’t understand the classics.’
Angela Gheorghiu wreaks revenge on her tormentor, Scarpia, in Tosca at the Royal Opera House. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
As a demonstration of her own desire to think out of the box, her latest CD of arias from 19th-century Italian opera, Eternamente, includes many otherwise forgotten works. One, Tagliami! Abbruciami!, from Leoncavallo's Zingari, she discovered while trawling around YouTube for examples of this florid, expressive and passionate Italian form of opera, called verismo.
The Royal Opera House is currently staging a superb double-bill of prime examples of verismo, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. But the little-known aria Tagliami! Abbruciami!, by the composer of Pagliacci, was one that she found uploaded by a young student, immediately spotting its potential. The CD includes a new recording of her calling card, Vissi d’arte, as well. Other extracts are sung with the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, on whose new album music for heroes and villains (out on 2 February and called simply Verdi) she also appears. Calleja plays her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, in the ROH Tosca, giving a total of eight performances in the role (15 Jan to 7 Feb).
She is most associated with this passionate repertoire – admits to having been forced to cancel performances from time to time over the years because crying at real-life setbacks has made it impossible to sing. ‘Try crying all night and see what it does to your voice next day!’ Upsets have included the end of her 16-year marriage to the French tenor Roberto Alagna. Now she is in a happy new relationship with a dentist and fellow Romanian, Mihai Ciortea; 22 years her junior, he admired her in La Rodine at Covent Garden in 2013, and has been at her side ever since.
Other changes may be in the air. Despite being associated with the big verismo sings, she would like to delve into earlier works. ‘I say, 'What about Mozart, but they want Puccini, Verdi...' There seems to be a border round that part of the repertoire that she is not allowed to cross.
Other borders, she transcends, but like countless other musicians who have been accustomed to moving freely from country to country, she despairs when countries diverge, like Britain from the rest of Europe. ‘It makes me very sad.’ But she is confident that those who know some love can grow to love more: ‘I hope the bad people have their own children, and love them, and then we all have a chance.’
Above all she believes in the healing power of music, ‘When a performance starts, for me it doesn’t matter who’s in front of me. It’s my job to make people happy, and if they are happy that makes them better people too, I hope.’
Tosca is sung in Italian with English surtitles. Performances at the Royal Opera House are from 15 Jan to 3 March. Angela Gheorghiu sings on 24 and 27 Jan. Click here for booking. It is relayed to cinemas citywide on 7 Feb: click here for more details.
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