Roberto Alagna & Angela Gheorghiu - Duets & Arias
Best Romanian Artists Series
A musical marriage made in Heaven!
November 30, 2003
Reviewer: Joy Fleisig
In the early 1990s I began following the careers of two immensely talented young singers then on the verge of international stardom. The French tenor Roberto Alagna wowed Covent Garden audiences as Romeo and Rodolfo, and had received rave reviews throughout Europe. The splendid Mimi of Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu enlivened an otherwise lackluster 1994 Metropolitan Opera broadcast, and an astounding triumph at Covent Garden as Violetta followed. I had often longed for these two splendid young artists to sing together, and I got my wish in spades when it was publicly announced that they were madly in love - this disc was recorded 6 months before and released in the U.S. 4 days before their real-life marriage. While I and many opera fans are hopeless romantics who are delighted by such things, what really matters is that their VOICES are married. Let's just say that I have heard other singers who are either married or otherwise romantically involved who do not have nearly the rapport that these two people do. They are supremely sensitive to and supportive of each other's artistry and even more importantly, are ultimately the servants of the composer.
Alagna's sweet, warm, earthy tenor and Gheorghiu's velvety, starlit soprano blend so perfectly that it often seems one voice is coming out of two mouths. Nowhere is this more true than on the triumph of the disc, 'Nuit d'ivresse' from Hector Berlioz's 'Les Troyens'. This is a good candidate for the best joint recording they have ever made and is certainly their best individual duet recording. While it is usually sung by a tenor with a heavier voice and a mezzo-soprano, the sheer lyricism of their voices renders this music utterly ravishing - I have never heard this piece sung more beautifully. And how many typical operatic 'love duet' albums would include something this rare? Their 'one voice' quality is also evident in 'Tornami a dir' from 'Don Pasquale', a triumph of heady sweetness, and again, not exactly standard fare. Throughout these selections, and indeed the entire album, we hear superb dynamic sensitivity and gorgeous pianissimo singing, and everything is sung with such dramatic intensity and immersion in character that you think you're hearing a live performance and not a recording. About the only quibble I have is that Alagna's diction in both French and Italian is so perfect that Gheorghiu's comes up a bit short by comparison.
The Cherry Duet from 'L'Amico Fritz' which begins the album is full of sweet affection and wistfulness. In the Saint Sulpice scene from 'Manon', Gheorghiu is irresistibly seductive and tender and Alagna believably torn between Des Grieux's pain at Manon's betrayal and his love for her. Some may actually prefer this version of the duet to the slightly more 'verismo' and less subtle rendition of their complete recording under Antonio Pappano. The Garden Scene from 'Faust', albeit not quite as intense as in their recent Metropolitan Opera performances, is still a triumph of French style, sensitivity, and drama, again with absolutely gorgeous pianissimo singing, this time at 'Eternelle!'. This should be no surprise to anyone who has heard them sing 'Romeo et Juliette'. And, of course, these masters of Gounod's version of 'Romeo and Juliet' also make something special of Bernstein's. I don't believe I've ever heard 'Tonight' more beautifully and musically sung - and as Gheorghiu pointed out in an interview, this is not 'easy' music to sing. The only problem here is that 'West Side Story' is more about Anglo/Puerto Rican culture clash than about family feuds, and so it hurts somewhat that the singers have the wrong (and more importantly, too similar) accents. Nevertheless, their English is clear and understandable, and as usual they mean every word they sing. The disc concludes with a radiant 'O soave fanciulla', where Rodolfo's and Mimi's romance is off to a tender and teasing start.
In addition to the six duets, each singer has two solo arias. Alagna's first is a splendid 'Ah, fuyez douce image', where he not only begins the aria pianissimo, but he makes more of the words than just about any tenor since Georges Thill. He follows this with a rollicking version of Paris' Entrance from 'La Belle Helene'. While not even Alagna can negotiate the B flat octave leaps with the ease of Jussi Bjorling (in his unsurpassable 1938 Swedish-language recording), he has the considerable advantage of native French speech, and a far better appreciation of the piece's humor. Gheorghiu has surpassed her two solo selections since making this recording - the 'Al dolce guidami' on her 'Casta Diva' bel canto disc and the 'Depuis le jour' on her live Covent Garden recital - but these versions demonstrate her ravishing top, command of legato, and extraordinary emotional expressivity.
Richard Armstrong (the music director of the Scottish Opera, who also conducted Alagna's solo debut album) is with his singers all the way and he has the Covent Garden Orchestra play gorgeously . In particular, his molding of the orchestral line and color in the Berlioz is very impressive. Excellent documentation, with full texts and translations, by British vocal collector John Steane. Although this is focused (as it should be) on the music rather than the singers, there is also brief biographical information on both Alagna and Gheorghiu, which none of their subsequent EMI CDs have had.
In short this album is a triumph from beginning to end and an absolute must for any lover of the human voice, absolutely giving lie to the common whine of 'all the great singers are gone forever'. Of course, you'll also have to buy Alagna's and Gheorghiu's complete opera recordings, their equally stunning Verdi duets CD, and too many individual solo albums to count. Almost anything either of these splendid artists do, separately or together, is worth buying and devouring. They're a Golden Age all by themselves!
1. Suzel, boun di...
2. L'amico Fritz, Atto 2: Tutto tace
3. Manon, Acte 3: Je suis seul! . . . Ah, fuyez
4. Toi! Vous! . . . Oui, c'est moi! . . .
5. Manon, Acte 3: N'est-ce plus ma main
6. Anna Bolena, Atto 2: Al dolce guidami castel natio
7. Don Pasquale, Atto 2: Tornami a dir
8. La Belle Helene, Acte 1: Au Mont Ida, trois deesses
9. West Side Story, Act 1: Only you . . .Tonight
10. Il se fait tard . . .
11. Faust, Acte 3: O nuit d'amour
12. Louise, Acte 3: Depuis le jour
13. Les Troyens, Acte 4: Nuit d'ivresse
14. La Boheme, Atto 1: O soave fanciulla
Well, this might be it, for now. I'm pretty much done with 2 cents of sharing.
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