Angela Gheorghiu acts the diva, but she doesn't seem to be one.
Before her appearances in Italy she leaves bold statements in the newspapers – “I don't feel the shadow of Callas” – “La Scala should educate their staff” – which manages to irritate both opera fans and management before she's even sung a note. But then, she's a diva… isn't she?
Her recital at La Scala last night started late, something virtually unheard of; curtain up at La Scala's is one of the few things in Italy which is on time. Slow handclaps indicated the audience's impatience. Maybe it had nothing to do with Gheorghiu, but her reputation precedes her.
She wore four different outfits, with four different hairstyles. Dresses went from opera-singer-elegant to La Cage aux Folles, from Romanian national costume to sassy-glitz. Hair started off as Sissi, moving through peasant plait and finishing with Jessica Rabbit.
She walked on stage as though in slow motion. A series of dramatic hand postures recalled Renata Scotto. She played with a long scarf finding every possible position for it: on one shoulder, left, then right, around both, draped from both elbows, and finally pushed into the piano.
But she was acting like a diva, not being one. Her insecurity makes you want to give her a hug, and tell her that everything will be fine. She was obviously so tense for the opening Le grillon by Rameau that her intonation was often off and at the end of the piece she hurriedly turned to applaud her (excellent) accompanist Jeff Cohen, and if to deflect attention from herself and the possible consequences. But even La Scala's loggionisti are hardly going to boo someone in a recital. Gheorghiu carried on applauding herself and Cohen after every song throughout the evening. Intonation is obviously a problem as there were other tricky moments during the recital, and there is an empty zone in the middle of the voice, but the colour is rich with a glamorous vibrato and it has a luminous top.
Gheorghiu, I suspect, is very ambitious, and wants to conqueror La Scala no matter what; even if her nerves get the better of her, she keeps coming back. Her courage is admirable. How many singers of great fame would put themselves through the stress?
If she just started acting herself instead of acting the diva, the opera star, La Gheorghiu, she would surely have an easier time of it, and would certainly win over the audience more quickly. Tepid applause followed most of the first part of the programme, in French, though things warmed up before the interval with three Rachmaninov songs. Singing in her native language in traditional garb was charming, though why she was still glued to the music for this repertoire heaven knows.
But as soon as she let her hair down, she let her hair down… so to speak! She played with it and joked with it (“This is for my sexy song”), and appeared far more relaxed for her second group of Romanian songs which concluded the official programme. She pouted and posed and preened. She put her index finger in the corner of her mouth like a glamour model, and threw come-hither looks toward the upper gallery. She giggled and sighed like a teenager. This wasn't Gheorghiu the diva, it was Gheorghiu the drag-queen, and I suspect this is closer to who she really is. She behaved like a fifteen-year-old girl discovering her feminine wiles and was delighted when someone in the audience yelled ‘sei bellissima'; during her last La Scala recital she even got a wolf whistle. So instead of being a Maria Callas maybe she should be more a Marilyn Monroe. All that aggressive arrogance and show (I mean, FOUR dresses) is surely her armour.
For her encores she pulled a game Cohen around the stage, having quite long sessions of whispering about what should be their next number. She sang a beautiful Io son l'umile ancella, tossed her hair, spoke in Italian, waved to every corner of the auditorium, let out a whoop, and generally looked as though she was having a good time.
As she edges towards fifty, maybe she'll find the courage to be herself. I'm talking about at here at La Scala; maybe she's a different performer in other venues. Her singing would surely benefit: instead of studied posturing by the bizarre creation Gheorghiu the diva, there could be genuine communication from Angela the woman.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.