The day I learned that EMI was putting out a disc with my name on it came hardly as a surprise: they do it all the time. What came as a surprise, however, was the knowledge that my name was going to be placed underneath someone else's. I never imagined such an outright violation of "decency" laws would occur in my other life. I, who topbilled every opera I ever appeared in, was not going to take this one sitting down! What's worse, the name that hovers directly above mine is the very name that has shamelessly capitalized on my fame more than any other soprano, living or dead. The impostor's name is none other than the so-called "definitive diva of the 21st-century": Angela Gheorghiu. A pretty enough name, yes, but you have to admit it lacks the familiar ring and alluring nuance of mine. Further, it's not even her own name: it's her ex-husband's. No, dear, not the fellow who stormed off the stage, but her first husband's name. Really, I have no problem at all with her name or in her dubious choice of men. The one thing that sent my blood pressure rising into the rafters was when I actually received the CD in the mail the other day.
While I'm flattered beyond words to be hyped and celebrated in such a way, what burns me is that Gheorghiu does it horrendously. From the first track to the last, she is downright imitating my style, my voice, my personality in the worst possible manner. It isn't even campy: it's worse than mere camp. It's one thing to do an "homage," it's another story entirely when someone does an utterly tasteless imitation of the person one is giving an homage to. I must admit that she does an admirable job of selling herself—her breasts appear to get bigger and BIGGER every time I see her on T.V.—but she is not an artist in the truest sense of that frequently misused and misapplied of words. For one, true artists never imitate. They may, on occasion, show up late for rehearsals or not show up at all, but they never—and I include myself among this elite group of artists—imitate someone else's vocal style or mannerisms. As for her choice of repertoire: well, it seems to me that when choosing prospective arias to include on the CD, she simply roamed around my vastly opulent garden of a discography and plucked the ones she liked without examining the roots to see if they had anything whatsoever to do with me. I mean, hello, I never even sang Dalila on stage, nor have I made something out of Carmen. I sang Adriana, Mimi, and La Wally on record (and a few times on stage) but these roles never became my signature roles. "Homage" my foot! What was she thinking?! To be perfectly blunt, her voice in the atrocious "Carmen" track, the one where she "duets" with me, is just about the single worst thing I've ever heard in my entire life—and believe me, I've heard my share of atrocities over the years. Listening to it gave me nightmares for several nights. Whoever had the idea of merging our voices into an incohesive duet ought to be fired immediately. (A trusted source tells me that it was not one of those stuffy British EMI executives as I had originally suspected but Gheorghiu herself who broached the monstrous idea.) Pairing our voices together was a proposition as disastrous and ill-advised as Mrs. Kennedy's Grecian nuptials! It just made me sick in disgust. Oh, don't get my blood pressure rising again by mentioning her absolute train wreck of a "Sempre libera". I thought it would never end: all that screeching and howling and barking. She sounds as if her Violetta is about ready to expire right then and there, doing so without fornicating with the sexy Alfredo of one James Valenti. Oh, the sheer horror of it all. Don't get La Divina wrong, I think Gheorghiu a fine artist, but only when she becomes herself. Her silly little tribute to my artistic legacy is nothing more than a clever plot to further her career by selling a few million records. Nothing less, nothing more. But then what can one expect from a self-centered, self-righteous, and self-promoting diva that is Angela Gheorghiu?
Clearly I am a delinquent. In that I haven't written down a single word about the current Lyric Opera of Chicago season which began some nine or ten weeks ago—practically a lifetime in the world of opera blogging. Whatever the reason(s) may be for my hiatus now seems irrelevant to rehash, for the one crucial thing required of people who intend to "move forward" is to bravely let go of the past and all its excess baggage—let's leave it at that. I will, however, revisit a most memorable performance that I was fortunate enough (really fortunate!) to have witnessed at Lyric this autumn. It made me forget the frustratingly dismal Lucia I saw earlier in the season with Giuseppe Filianoti, as well as a tedious Hoffmann with Matthew Polenzani. That performance was Ariadne auf Naxos, with Amber Wagner in the title role (replacing Deborah Voigt), Anna Christy as Zerbinetta, Alice Coote as the Composer, and Brandon Jovanovich as Bacchus. The production was very Gilbert and Sullivan. The singing, on the other hand, was not. Soprano Wagner, making her Lyric début, was a revelation. A consummate performer, her voice swirled and flowed in the air like French chiffon, majestically and technically secure in all registers. Her soprano soared thrillingly across a flawless Straussian sky. Coote was just as impressive, as was Christy's stratospheric Zerbinetta. Jovanovich was a vocally and visually arresting Bacchus. Like Voigt, the scheduled Ariadne, conductor Andrew Davis has never excelled in Italian operas, but his Ariadne was a sheer delight from beginning to end, as the music of Richard Strauss should be.
For a change, diva Gheorghiu fulfilled her promise: that of performing with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra on Sunday night. My friend T, who trekked up north last weekend specifically for Angela's sake, files his report below. Merci to him, and to the diva herself who, for once, actually turned up after saying she would.
Angela Gheorghiu's highly-anticipated, rather belated Vancouver debut recital took place at the Orpheum, a palatial venue that, upon entering its cavernous facade, had me worrying like a stage mother. The first thought that creeped into my mind was this: Would Gheorghiu's precious decibels prove deficit against such a vast space? Followed by: Would it soar against full orchestra, project audibly across the hall, without damaging her voice in the process? For after all a singer's number one priority, more than anything, is to be heard loud and clear. I need not have worried, for this soprano soared magnificently into the rafters, the kind of glorious soaring that would render her detractors mute, those who quibble about the size of her voice when they can't find anything else to quibble about. Gheorghiu, on the evening of April 3, once again demonstrated her almost superhuman ability to capture an audience hook, line and sinker, turning the most maudlin of arias into luminous gems, showing off her celebrated soprano as the gods themselves who created it would want her to, singing a treasure trove of arias both genteel and dramatic in nature, earning her lavish praise from the audience who applauded wildly the moment she made her entrance. "Lascia ch'io pianga"—the soprano's favorite warm-up piece—was exactly that: a "safe," risk-free little aria, a balm to soothe her vocal chords as only the music of Handel could, a prelude to the bigger, more riskier numbers such as Rusalka's haunting "Song To The Moon," La Wally's tragic soliloquy "Ebben, ne andro lontana," and Margherita's powerful "L'altra note in fondo al mare"—all of which Gheorghiu delivered with thrilling passion and artistry that the audience, no doubt caught up in the rapture of a voice so bewitching and magical as to seem altogether real, willingly overlooked the constant tug-of-war the diva and conductor Bramwell Tovey were pointlessly playing on stage, and that Schubert's Ständchen did not at all become her—all these minor blemishes vanish the moment one hears the miraculous beauty of Gheorghiu's voice. It also doesn't hurt that the diva cuts a striking figure on stage, looking like a Hindu goddess in a black and white long-sleeved plaid organza ensemble with matching fringed shawl. Gheorghiu looked especially smashing in a flowing hussy-red dress that followed every contour and emphasized every erogenous zone of her hour-glass figure and which, naturally, turned heads whenever she moved which she did quite a bit. The encores—they weren't encores per se, at least spontaneously speaking, for they were obviously rehearsed—the encores were extravagantly sung and extravagantly rewarded with rapturous applause. I'm talking nearly half-a-dozen numbers here that ranged from the infectious "Granada" to the sentimental "All The Things You Are," the latter of which the soprano, accompanied on the piano by conductor Tovey, sang with all the joy and promise of an exuberant, flawless, picture-perfect spring day, the audience barely resisting the urge to sing along with Angela. It was a gorgeous end to a gorgeous recital. Later in the lobby, a few people, perhaps the same ones who found themselves mesmerized by the melody of Jerome Kern's most beloved song as to almost sing backup to Angela, were humming the exquisite melody, doing so without the slightest inhibition, as we all walked out into a cool, moonlit Vancouver night.
"There is no pain like the pain of knowing you love someone but cannot live with them." This line is found on page 17 of Sándor Márai's rediscovered, newly-translated novel, Portraits of a Marriage, but its frankness and simplicity is so powerful in its emotional truth that Márai, had he opened the book with it, may have written an entirely different novel altogether; its stunning impact worthy to be placed alongside other iconic first lines such as: "The past is a different country, they do things differently there," from L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between.
The Hungarian novelist, famous in his native land and who later committed suicide at 89 in San Diego where he lived for many years, has had one of the most enthusiastically-received posthumous careers in recent years, consistently making the bestseller list, all thanks mainly to Alfred A. Knopf who, for the past decade, has devotedly churned out five beloved Márai novels that, once translated into English, put the long-forgotten writer back on the map with his evocative tales of longing and loneliness, unrequited love and immeasurable loss that in their brilliance and breathtaking originality surpass, in scope and magnitude, the novels of that other Astro-Hungarian writer of mad genius who also took his own life, Stefan Zweig.
Márai's Portraits of a Marriage is a searing, intense, thought-provoking dissection of a disastrous marriage told in the distinctly different voices of three protagonists: the man, the woman, and the other woman, with an additional person, an unnamed man, who concludes the story through his own point of view. Peter, who leads an enviable life—fancy car and house, servants, every comfort money could buy—with his adoring wife, Ilonka, in pre-WWI Budapest, has had it with marriage, but who is reluctant to get out of it because of one significant hindrance: a child, the product of this seemingly charmed and ideal union, and whose tragic early death shatters Peter's world and, inevitably, his marriage. Enter the "other woman," Judit, whom Peter marries and eventually divorces. The plot, more or less, ends here. All of the three characters are then given substantial time to vent their innermost feelings, feelings that have been festering inside for years and are freed at last. Painstakingly, these anguished souls reconstruct, reconfigure and revise their fractured lives with unflinching candor, and here is where the novelist's genius is fully revealed. Even though Márai is never subtle when giving voice to his characters, he is an extremely generous writer, often sacrificing subtlety in lieu of powerfully concocted prose. If a thought suddenly enters his mind, he not only writes it down but offers a mini dissertation on the matter, sounding, in most pages, like a Baptist minister who preaches, rather emphatically, that "To love is to know joy as completely as it can be known and then to perish," and that "True love is always fatal. . . it burns with a fierce, more dangerous flame."
The urgent, dashed-off, in-the-heat-of-the-moment tone of the prose has the texture and bleak atmosphere of an Ingmar Bergman or John Cassavetes movie. The conversational, idiosyncratic narrative style is highly effective for a novel that reads like a transcript of an hours-long therapy session where the patient is doing all of the talking and the shrink is virtually mute. The pacing is unconventional: past, present and future are blurred beyond recognition, colliding into each other as in dreams. The dialogue—or, rather, the monologue spoken by the characters as they seem to be talking to an invisible friend and in fact are—are inlaid into the abstract structure of the narrative, piece by piece, like ornate Byzantine mosaics, gleaming with the shine of age-old wisdom: "Let's forget loneliness. Let it go. It may be no more than illusion," one character suggests wearily; while another troubled soul asserts that love is not "a great help to anyone. . . now here, now gone." Márai's clear-eyed, uncompromising insights into the intricately tangled web that is human love teach rather than preach, enlighten rather than condemn. In one particularly memorable episode, a character pours out her heart to a priest in what can be considered the novel's epitaph, the voice of the priest shining forth with conviction, like the gilded altar of the ancient cathedral itself where the confession takes place: "God gave people love so they might bear the world and each other."
At the end of this uncomplicated yet complex, brazenly modern (it was originally published in Hungary seventy years ago) novel, all three characters (along with the reader) will ultimately ask themselves if love, in all its myriad disguises and possibilities, "might prove. . . eternal"—can it "dissolve the distance between two people."? In an appalling age where "lovers make love in a hurry, like children gobbling their food," where love easily succumbs to hate, where it is seldom reciprocated, and where very few people would take the trouble to "strain every muscle and nerve to love"—can love exist, survive or grow at all? Márai, in this exceptionally wise novel, does not give clichéd answers and then tie them all up with a pretty bow; instead, he offers hope: "some hope at the bottom of my heart, that there would be a body, one single, unique body, that would move in perfect harmony with mine, that would succeed in quenching the thirst of desire. . . that people generally refer to as happiness."
For the Met's legendary 1966 season, Cecil Beaton was commisioned to design the sets and costumes for Alfred Lunt's new staging of La traviata. The costumes were inspired by the evocative silhouette of 1860s Paris, of the age of Réjane, of the era of the demi-monde. Beaton remarked at the time that he "wanted the colors to have a gold light, dark but sparkling, and scintillating." Violetta's first-act gown, a showstopper in rich brocade, above, captures the courtesan's imperious coquettishness superbly; while the ballgown, below, presumably the one Mlle. V wears in the second scene of the second act, showcases the heroine's killer allure and subtle power to stunning effect. The Violetta of that glittering production, by the way, was the stunningly beautiful Anna Moffo, whose vocal and physical fragility made her one of that century's most visually alluring and compelling la dame aux camélias.
The following is the first in a series I'm launching here at Chanteuse, where I'll be conducting imaginary heart-to-heart conversations with sopranos (living or dead) by way of the legendary Proust Questionnaire. It is purely fictional. First at bat is none other than the biggest diva of the age, the "infuriating" yet utterly "sublime" Angela Gheorghiu.
Thank you, Ms. Gheorghiu, for taking the time out of your hectic schedule to speak to me.
Shall we begin?
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
To be away from the stage. To be away from the heroines I love so much to portray on a nightly basis.
Where would you like to live?
Burma. Where I am certain no one has ever heard of me. Why? To simply get away from my chaotic life.
What is your idea of earthly happiness?
Making love. Figuratively and literally.
To what fault do you feel most indulgent?
Shopping till I drop. A girl can never have too many Christian Louboutins!
Shopping till I drop. A girl can never have too many Christian Louboutins!
Who is your favorite heroine of fiction?
Madame Bovary. She had guts! I envy her that.
Who is your favorite painter?
My make-up artist. I mean, look at me!
What is your favorite color?
Darling, I'm color blind. Perhaps you'd best ask Ms. Fleming this question.
What is your favorite flower?
Luscious pink roses. I always ask my maid to put fresh pink roses in my dressing room no matter what the season. I can't live without them.
Pink roses? But you just said you're color blind.
Yes, darling, but I always see life through rose-tinted glasses.
La vie en rose, you know what I mean?
Who are your favorite poets? And why?
Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I've always been drawn to the darker side of life, and both poets were practically suicidal all their lives.
Who is your favorite composer?
Verdi. His music makes me sound rather divine, don't you think?
What is the one quality you most admire in a man?
I don't want to be shallow, but I always judge the men in my life at how good they are at kissing. Me, I mean.
And in a woman?
I have no opinion of other women. Only an estimation. What might that be? Only I know.
What is your favorite virtue?
Staying true to myself at all times.
The one virtue that seems to have gotten me in trouble lately.
What is your favorite occupation?
Heavens, can't you hear I love to sing?
What natural gift would you most like to possess?
I already have it.
How would you like to die?
On the stage. The operatic stage. Is there a better place to expire?
Yes, but I rather asked how.
Peacefully. Serenely. But still on that stage. If it's good enough for Violetta to die in, then it's good enough for me!
What is your greatest achievement?
Overcoming the debilitating fear of wearing a blond wig.
What traits do you deplore in other performers?
To regret strongly. In other words, loathe.
Lack of talent. An inflated ego.
What traits do you admire in other performers?
Talent and, granted it is reasonable enough, an inflated ego.
What is your motto?
Same as Saint Joan's: "Hold the Cross high so that I may see it through the flames!"
Who would you have liked to be?
My dear, I've never wanted to become anyone else. Never!
From the day I was born, I've always wanted to become Angela Gheorghiu.
Mezzo phenom Joyce DiDonato, apart from being a down-to-earth, uncomplicated diva, is a very generous performer. A rare trait in this appalling age of half-baked, "where's my money?" performers. An admirable trait, to say the least, that Ms. DiDonato, on Friday night at Mandel Hall in her rather belated Chicago recital début, lavished an adoringly appreciative audience with. The program she and her accompanist David Zobel offered was akin to a ten-course meal served at a three-star Michelin restaurant but at half the price.
Dressed in a Neo-Victorian taffeta gown, Ms. DiDonato began as she always does: with verve, audacity, and guts. She sang a complex Haydn concert aria that would have exhausted Joan Sutherland in her prime and would certainly exasperate the lungs of lesser mortals. Ms. DiDonato's voice shimmered in this opening number like the Mediterranean on a flawless summer's day, dispatching tricky, arabesque notes as though they were the easiest thing in the world to do. A trio (or was it a quartet?) of seldom-heard/performed arias by her friend and master Mr. Rossini melted hearts, as did an array of songs by Reynaldo Hahn, all of which were sumptuously sung, feeding the soul as well as the body. More Rossini was on the menu, giving a decadent reading of "Tanti affetti" from La donna del lago, the basic ingredient of which was charm filled with Italian brio and spice. As an encore, Ms. DiDonato belted (tastefully) Dorothy's gut-wrenching anthem "Over the Rainbow" with all the yearning and pathos the song requires. (No showy, over-the-top "I Could Have Danced All Night" for this diva!) It was a most delectable dessert to end the feast with; a song that satisfied and cleansed my palate as only Joyce DiDonato could.
P.S. On Saturday morning, I devoured her latest CD, above: a witty concept album—the mezzo plays "bisexual" in this recording—that offers a fattening buffet of arias ranging from Mozart to Massenet. (I hit the gym later in the day.)