The tale of two Traviatas

Angela Gheorghiu and Andrea Rost are two stars in the making. And both are singing Verdi's Violetta. Is Covent Garden's stage wide enough to keep rivalry at bay
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In the days when the Three Tenors were three piping trebles, all eyes were fixed on the Two Sopranos. But this was not a love-fest. Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi were divas of the same age - though very differing talents - who thought it best to operate with an ocean between them: Tebaldi at the Met in New York, Callas at La Scala in Milan and Covent Garden. Callas was the jealous one, Tebaldi's trademark was a queenly serenity. The feud went on for years, and the press loved it.

Now, Covent Garden is about to offer us the spectacle of the Two Traviatas, in the form of the fiery Romanian Angela Gheorghiu, and the sweetly vivacious Hungarian Andrea Rost. This, it must be emphasised, is not a feud - though the pair have only brushed shoulders once, and that with no great pleasure - but it's certain to be a contest. Because over the coming months they are taking it in turn to play that supreme Verdian role, the self-sacrificing courtesan Violetta.

Gheorghiu, of course, got there first: Sir Georg Solti's well-publicised tears of joy when he first heard her sing, and the rivers that flowed down the aisles when the rest of the beau monde encountered her, signalled her instant stardom. Her subsequent romance with superstar tenor Roberto Alagna set the seal on it: travelling together, practising together, giving interviews together - as well as performing together - they have turned themselves into an operatic double-act to eclipse all others.

Rost, who will be partnered at Covent Garden by the Mexican Ramon Vargas, carefully deflects all talk of rivalry: "Angela has her life, I have mine. We can progress in parallel." But the parallel is oddly close. When Rost made her recording debut as Gilda in Riccardo Muti's La Scala production of Verdi's Rigoletto, her ducal paramour was none other than Roberto Alagna. And there are correspondences in the two women's histories: both were born in the early Sixties (Rost is a couple of years older), both benefited from specialised tuition provided free by the state, both were "spotted" at 14.

But there the parallels stop. While the Romanian's budding talent was cheered every step of the way by her doting parents, the teenage Rost had to overcome her blue-collar father's opposition to her career. When fame struck, Gheorghiu ditched her Romanian husband; Rost is still based in Budapest, where she lives with her pianist husband and two children.

She was a solitary but happy child, she says in her slow, precise English. She was brought up by her grandmother, while her parents toiled in a factory in a neighbouring town. She failed on her first attempt to get into the Budapest Music Conservatory. "I deserved to. I had a child's voice, like Jerry in the cartoon." Over the next few years, under the tutelage of the septuagenarian baritone Zsolt Bende, she developed a lower register. "I hope I've learnt from him the secret of how to go on singing to a great age."

Her career took off in a series of escalating leaps. She won prizes in competitions, starred at the Hungarian State Opera in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, and was drafted into the Vienna State Opera where, singing Zerlinas, Susannas and Rosinas, she did what she calls her "professional growing up". Spotted in Salzburg by Muti, she moved on to make her debut at La Scala, Milan.

But stress took its toll. Last summer, while rehearsing Violetta back in Salzburg, she completely lost her voice. "My doctor insisted that I should just sit quietly, watch TV, read, write letters, but not speak a word." The cure worked, but she learnt a lesson. "I realised the importance of not pushing my voice, of knowing when to say no." No to what? "To any suggestion that I should sing one of the darker, heavier Verdian roles, like Leonora in Il Trovatore. In 10 years' time, maybe." But isn't Violetta dark? "Violetta is, for me, the..." She breaks off, fishing for words, and ending up with one in German - "the Grenze, the borderline with darkness which I must not cross at present."

Like any other musician, she closely monitors the strengths and limitations of her instrument. "My voice is warmer and heavier than that of the true coloratura. But I could never sing Wagner - the orchestra is too loud, and my voice would not penetrate it. I can't do Boheme yet, for the same reason. If I were to do Trovatore, I couldn't do Traviata as well: the two modes would be, for me, mutually exclusive."

She will, however, include an aria from Puccini's La Boheme on the solo CD she is about to record - "because I can put the microphone close to my mouth". Mozart, she says, is her preferred cure for vocal ills: "His music is like a healing oil." Temperamental things, voices.

Temperament? That she has a-plenty, as she showed last autumn in the Covent Garden Figaro. She loves the business of acting, and spends many nights at the theatre in Budapest. "I love to watch an actor build a role. Whereas singing all the time, only singing..." She gives a bored grimace. She has, in fact, the sort of face the camera loves, and it's a fair bet that this time next year, when fame has sought her out, she'll be up on screen. Her idea of bliss would be playing Eliza in My Fair Lady, and she does a neat little Cockney act to make the point.

But she seems entirely devoid of pretension. The fact that she sings only occasionally at the Budapest Opera is due less, she says, to the miserable fees than to her insistence on keeping her workload within sensible limits. "I love the stage, but it's only a mirror to reality. I want my children to feel they have a mother, not just a grandmother."

How real is Violetta to her? She takes a deep breath, and gives an unexpected reply. "My father died suddenly last month - a heart attack at 54 - and the shock was so big, I now see life from another aspect. We are in the world for a while, but when the last moment comes, we have to make a list - what we did in our lives, and how. That is why I don't want to be jealous of Angela - or of anyone else. Because, in those last moments, I would like to make a good list, with good feelings, and beautiful pictures. I had to rehearse Violetta the day after he died. Yes, she is real to me."

n Andrea Rost opens in the Royal Opera's 'La Traviata' tonight (booking: 0171-304 4000); her recording of 'Rigoletto', under Muti, is on Sony Classical CD (S2K 66 314). Angela Gheorghiu opens in 'La Traviata' on 8 July; her recording, under Solti, is on Decca CD (448 119-2)