Angela Gheorghiu: Born to sing of suffering

Angela Gheorghiu, the diva of the age, has a special affinity for the tragic heroines of Puccini's operas. 'I, too, have tears in my voice,' the soprano tells Lynne Walker
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"If Puccini were alive today, I'd be in love with him. I am sure of it. He knew how to write for sopranos: he really loved them," says Angela Gheorghiu. And this soprano knows Puccini's heroines well, having most of them in her repertoire or in her plans. On her latest CD, a handsomely packaged set from EMI, she steps into the shoes of all his major soprano characters, with the exception of the adulterous Giorgetta in Puccini's most impressionistic score, Il Tabarro.

"If Puccini were alive today, I'd be in love with him. I am sure of it. He knew how to write for sopranos: he really loved them," says Angela Gheorghiu. And this soprano knows Puccini's heroines well, having most of them in her repertoire or in her plans. On her latest CD, a handsomely packaged set from EMI, she steps into the shoes of all his major soprano characters, with the exception of the adulterous Giorgetta in Puccini's most impressionistic score, Il Tabarro.

With her reputation for expensive tastes and well-publicised desire to be treated like a prima donna of old, Gheorghiu would have enjoyed sharing Puccini's flamboyant lifestyle, his interest in stylish clothes, his penchant for fast cars and speedboats, and his willingness to be photographed. She has defended her liking for luxury, the elaborate conditions she lays down before interviews and photoshoots, and her reputation for prickliness. Pop stars, models, footballers' wives, film stars, even celebrity small fry make similar demands, so why are hers outrageous? In her case, she says, it's a matter of professionalism.

The trouble is, we're not used to it in the arts world. We're bewildered that anyone would need a hairdresser and make-up assistant for a radio interview, as Gheorghiu did. The limousines to ferry her around; the insistence that tiny creases be ironed out of dresses before appearances; touching up her lippy in the middle of a Verdi Requiem televised live to millions - all are greeted with disbelief. But it's not so unusual in someone who so clearly styles herself on the legendary operatic divas of the past.

She is surely being optimistic, however, if she thinks she could have persuaded Puccini to drop his hobby of shooting anything with wings, or broken the chain-smoking habit that led to his death from throat cancer. "Maybe I could have convinced him not to," she says, only half-joking. And the failure and misery of his marriage, the complexity of his emotions and his roving eye might have driven even her to despair. But the world's favourite diva is clearly seduced by his attitude to his operatic heroines and the roles and sumptuous music he created for them.

It was with Puccini, as Mimi in La Bohème, that she made her debut, in Bucharest. She was the daughter of a train driver and a dressmaker, living in Ceausescu's Romania. But now she feels as if she has been born twice, once in Romania and again in Britain. Since making her Covent Garden debut as Zerlina in one performance opposite Bryn Terfel's Masetto in Don Giovanni in 1992, and returning to sing Mimi a few months later, her big moment came in 1994 as Violetta in La Traviata under Sir Georg Solti. It was then that the critics dubbed her "a diva to die for".

The name Gheorghiu is a relic of a previous marriage to a plumbing engineer. At 39, at the height of her career, does she regret not changing it? "It's not so important. My family name, by which I'm still known in Adjud, where I was born, was Burlacu. But the name Gheorghiu belongs to one the most important artistic families in Romania, and I am on good terms with my ex-husband's family. His father, Stefan, was a violinist, and his uncle Valentin a pianist and composer, so I am really just keeping a great musical tradition going," she says, with unusual modesty. "It's a Greek name, actually: there's a Gheorghiu Street in Athens."

But does she still feel Romanian? "In my heart, I have never left Romania, but I have had to make my career all over the world. I sang in Bucharest at Christmas," she says, "though it had been 10 years since I last appeared there, with Domingo." Is she interested in Romanian music? "Not so much folk music, but I would very much like to record George Enescu. His opera Oedipe is not to my taste, but perhaps songs, the Sept Chansons de Clément Marot, for instance, or some by Dinu Lipatti."

Gheorghiu's partnership with her French-Sicilian tenor husband, Roberto Alagna, dating back to their first encounter at Covent Garden in La Bohème in 1992, has resulted in acclaimed performances on stage, disc and film. They married in 1996 in New York during a run of La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera, and their lives quickly became the stuff of romantic legend, their relationship the focus of media attention, their behaviour criticised, every appearance scrutinised.

Now, questions about their relationship, once paraded in their parallel careers, are discouraged. The fact that he's branching out on his own, taking roles in operas not in her repertoire - Aida and Cyrano de Bergerac, for instance - she dismisses as "coincidence". Yet when I ask her who chooses in which opera houses and in what repertoire she'll sing, she replies adamantly that she, and she alone, makes those decisions. Could it be that Alagna can no longer compete with the lyrical beauty, gorgeous tone and classy acting that have made his wife so highly sought after? Or maybe he's just tired of Puccini and wants to move on.

When today's most celebrated husband-and-wife opera partnership can apparently command a third, "duet" fee on top of their solo fees - the "pair" billing somehow separate and additional to the two individual singers - it's strange that their musical paths seem to be diverging. The director Jonathan Miller nicknamed them "Bonnie and Clyde", and they were also dubbed "the Ceausescus" of opera. But the secret once spilt by a lovestruck Gheorghiu that she and Alagna made love before performances to relax their vocal cords sounds a bit sad now.

She switched record companies to share the same label as her husband, and EMI quickly issued an album of love duets. But Alagna has since moved to a different label, making merely a cameo appearance on her Puccini CD. As Pinkerton, he utters just three impassioned cries of, "Butterfly", and is only slightly more in evidence as Calaf the unknown prince in "In questa reggia" from Turandot.

Despite her known desire to keep her personal and professional lives separate, Gheorghiu mentions his name quite happily a few times, particularly in connection with the children she calls their daughters. Ornella, Alagna's daughter by his first wife (who died of a brain tumour), lives in Paris. Uana, who lives in London, is Gheorghiu's niece: she and Alagna have looked after her since the death of Gheorghiu's sister in a car accident.

Gheorghiu and Alagna have lived near Geneva for 10 years, yet she is little known in Switzerland, where artistic restrictions on foreign nationals have limited her appearances. I suspect all that may be about to change, as a photographer and style-magazine interviewer will follow me into the exclusive suite Gheorghiu has insisted on in the luxurious lakeside Beau Rivage hotel, with its spectacular views of the Alps and Mont Blanc.

She claims to enjoy the privacy and seclusion of the Swiss resort, but when she turns up, only half an hour late, dark glasses barely hiding her face, I feel rather guilty that there's only me and a couple of old ladies (one of whom is blind) to witness her grand entrance from* *the car sent to bring her to the hotel. She's full of charm, however, chattering quickly in surprisingly fragmentary English, constantly gesturing for emphasis. It takes a few gentle cues to persuade her to discuss Puccini, the new CD and her career. She tends to orate rather than discuss, or to go off at a tangent, perhaps about what she's reading (Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, as it happens).

So what is it about Puccini that she finds so compelling? "He really understood theatre, the look and feel of a play, so that everything is in the score." She feels at ease with the flow of natural speech in his melodies. "I prefer that to the rigidity of bel canto - introduction, aria and cabaletta. A Puccini aria is really a small drama in itself, a big story distilled into just three or four minutes. In Mozart, you have to go over and over things: andiamo, andiamo, andiamo, andiamo... OK, I get it," she laughs.

Like the composer, who knew that a short aria would fit on one side of an early 78rpm disc, Gheorghiu is passionate about exploiting modern technology. She and Alagna have made two opera films, a 90-minute reduction of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette for television, and a screen version of Tosca. "It was hard work, but I'd like to make more, maybe La Rondine. Opera in film is still quite rare, and opera fans don't much like it. They think the use of playback somehow makes it false. But it's a matter of quality and how you do it."

Tosca is presented as a fully costumed operatic performance intercut with black-and-white documentary footage of the recording. Purists could grumble not only that the visuals interrupt the drama, but that they'd also prefer not to be exposed to Gheorghiu and Alagna having to lip-sync to a pre-recorded soundtrack.

"I am sorry, but the opera public has very old-fashioned ideas," Gheorghiu says with a shrug. "These people are nostalgic and always want things to be as they were, or as they thought they were. But the world is changing and I am living now and want to use all the equipment and developments of my time. I believe in the use of microphones and in recordings, making CDs and films - that is part of my testimony.

"Opera is theatre with music," Gheorghiu continues, "and in the most powerful drama everyone likes to cry. It's human. Besides," she adds, "I have tears in my voice. I was born like that. They exist there. I don't know why or how, but I feel lucky to have both words and music, two tools with which to build dramatic situations. I don't use different voices or alter my technique, but it's as if I am using a whole palette of paints to produce a different picture. I like Puccini's emotional tenderness, too, the range of emotions and the difference in personality between the teenage Manon Lescaut, the abused Butterfly or the icy princess Turandot. They suit my voice and my temperament, even though I always seem to be killing myself!"

Puccini seems to be in her blood as well as her tears - which is just as well. In addition to a gala concert of Puccini arias at the Royal Festival Hall in London, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by fellow-Romanian Ion Marin, it is with Mimi - the role in which she made her official Royal Opera debut - that Gheorghiu returns to Covent Garden in the summer. This time, instead of Alagna playing opposite her as her lover Rodolfo, it will be Yu Qiang Dai. Mark Elder conducts. John Copley's 26-year-old production with its period designs by the late Julia Trevelyan Oman will be familiar to her, and must by now have passed her strict test of authenticity.

Tales of her behaviour in the opera house have filled many column inches. Was it arrogance or a genuine sense of faithfulness to artistic principles that led to her refusal to die surrounded by ward orderlies in Jonathan Miller's hospitalisation of La Traviata? "I die alone or not at all," she reputedly argued. And was it vanity or a deeper understanding of the role hair-colour plays in interpreting Bizet that provoked the disagreement over the blonde wig she was asked to don as Micaela in Carmen at the Met in New York? The wig didn't quite go on "with or without her", as threatened by Joseph Volpe, the house's feisty manager, but it was a close-run thing.

Interestingly, Jonathan Kent, very much an actor's director, has been engaged for her stage debut as Tosca at Covent Garden next year. His operatic experience is pretty much limited to Janacek's Katya Kabanova and Mozart's Lucia Silla at Santa Fe, and Tippett's oratorio A Child of Our Time for English National Opera. No doubt he's gearing up to tackle both the psychological drama of that most Wagnerian of Puccini's operas, Tosca, as well as the psychological dramas that may be acted out off stage. Tosca is a role said to require "lungs of leather and vocal cords of steel". Gheorghiu is singing it for the first time in the opera house, but the soundtrack of her film attracted adulatory reviews: "The most sensuous Tosca imaginable...", "ideal passion and beauty..." and "a great performance, as magnetic as Callas's."

"What luck," she says, "that 'Vissi d'arte' was added to Tosca as an afterthought." She tells me that it was composed for the Romanian Ericlea Darclée, who created the role of Floria Tosca. "Just imagine - one of the best-loved arias in the world, and perhaps the best-known after 'Nessun dorma', was inserted at the request of the leading soprano." One imagines Puccini would have obliged if it had been Gheorghiu setting her sights so determinedly on a big number.

Of her stage collaborators, Franco Zeffirelli is her favourite. Presumably he adheres to Puccini's explicit "director-proof" stage instructions, which - oddly for someone who gently castigates opera audiences for being stuck in a groove - she insists on. If she doesn't like the Covent Garden sets and costumes for Tosca, or if Kent's direction veers away from her very fixed idea of historical accuracy, she would have no qualms about withdrawing. Like many of Puccini's heroines, she's her own woman.

Will she sing "Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore" (I lived on art, I lived on love) lying on the floor in the tradition established when another glamorous singing actress, Maria Jeritza, accidentally slipped just before expressing her anguish at the cruelties piled on to her? Gheorghiu is giving little away, except that she loves Tosca, once memorably dismissed as "a shabby little shocker".

What does Gheorghiu hope for from a conductor? "Someone who'll take care of my voice, who'll be very, very careful. I think conductors in general are jealous because they are in the pit. They think they are not important enough in opera performances because, unlike on concert platforms in front of their orchestras, they aren't really seen and can't make an impression.

"In opera, it's more of a partnership. Some conductors won't accept that. They force singers to use their voices too much. If a conductor doesn't help you or allows the orchestra to play too loudly or chooses the wrong tempo, then you are dead on stage, completely destroyed. So the essential thing is a good atmosphere between singers and conductor."

She adores working with the Royal Opera's music director, Antonio Pappano, and loves working at Covent Garden. The Royal Opera even gets in on her new disc in an extra item, a bonus single, featuring "Vissi d'arte'. The rest of the album is conducted by the veteran Anton Coppola. When she met Coppola in New York, Gheorghiu was thrilled to discover his direct lineage to Puccini: he was a pupil of Franco Alfano, Puccini's younger contemporary. Alfano completed Puccini's last opera when the composer died in 1924, with just 15 minutes of Turandot music left to write. Gheorghiu now feels "absorbed into the family".

What did Coppola bring to the recording that made it such a special experience? "He knew exactly how to create the right accompaniments, how to nurture the long line, how to make the instruments sound conversational, how to match intimacy with power. He understands that Puccini's music is in the air. We recognise it even when we don't know what it is." Maybe she'll get to sing Turandot in a production conducted by this legendary conductor, directed either by his nephew Francis Ford, or his great-niece, Sofia.

Sticking to her rule of adding only one role a year to her repertoire, the next is the title role in Bizet's Carmen, in Spain, appropriately, in 2007. What about Richard Strauss? "Maybe, but not yet." Wagner? "The trouble with Wagner is that his characters are wonderful and his music is wonderful, but he wrote too much. Everything is too long and too tiring. It would have been better for singers, and I think for a lot of the public too, if his music had been more compact. If I need to say something I prefer to say it in a phrase, not over three or four pages."

And with that she graciously indicates that she's said everything she needs to.

'Puccini Arias'; Orchestra Sinfonico di Milano Giuseppe Verdi/Anton Coppola (EMI 557 9550). Gheorghiu sings Puccini in a celebratory gala concert at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (0870 380 0400; www.rfh.org.uk) on 10 May; and sings Mimi in 'La Bohème' at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London WC2 (020-7304 4000; www.royalopera.org) on 17, 20 and 24 June

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