I first heard the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu on an otherwise extraordinarily dull 1994 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of 'La Boheme', and immediately knew that we had a major star in the making. Shortly afterwards she sang Violetta at Covent Garden to nearly universal ecstasy, and was instantly given a recording contract with Decca/London. This recital CD followed shortly after.
Gheorghiu possesses one of the most extraordinary voices ever recorded, and can easily be put in the same category of some of the greatest sopranos of the past. (I know what I'm talking about here - I have at least 75 other sopranos in my record collection!). The voice is as dark and radiant as a star-filled nebula and complex as a fine wine. From a warm, mezzoish bottom to a ravishing top which blooms with ease, it is a rich full lyric that can encompass an extremly wide range of repertory with no difficulties. She has a superb technique (including excellent coloratura), an innate sense of phrasing and sensitivity to the text. Her Italian and French diction is quite fine, actually better than in some of her subsequent outings.
Unfortunately, while both the arresting quality of Gheorghiu's voice and its natural soulfulness are always evident, what is often missing here is the intense dramatic fire and detailed vocal acting that characterize virtually every other recording and live performance I have ever heard her sing. Had I reviewed this disc when it was first released in 1996, I would have given it 5 stars - but now that I know what Gheorghiu is truly capable of (and due to other problems listed below), I find it just a trifle disappointing and am giving it 3 1/2 stars.
When singers I admire falter on records, I tend to blame the conductor. This is difficult in the case of John Mauceri, whose work I've admired elsewhere. However, while he conjures lush and expressive playing from the Orchestra del Teatro Regio di Torino (and fine singing from its chorus), he tends to wallow in the gorgeousness of the music a bit too much, possibly at the expense of the drama. However, I think the ultimate problem with this disc is that it was Gheorghiu's first solo studio recording, and she had not yet learned how to act for the microphone - a lesson I suspect she learned primarily from Antonio Pappano.
The best selections on the disc, no great suprise, are the two arias from 'La Boheme'. Here she is the most dramatically engaged, possibly because at the time this was the role she had the most stage experience in. In 'Si, mi chiamano Mimi' one notes the gentle laughter in 'E perche? Non so.' and the way she emphasizes the word 'soletta', making it very clear that Mimi is inviting Rodolfo to keep her company! And, of course, a heartwrenching execution of the aria's climax. 'Donde lieta usci' is also deeply moving and full of lovely word-painting. Almost as fine as these is the aria from 'I Capuletti ed I Montecchi', but I still think it would have more impact if she were to sing it today. Nanetta's Fairy aria from 'Falstaff', which opens the disc, is appropriately enchanting and a fine showcase for Gheorghiu's ethereal, floated top. A comparative rarity, Ensoleillad's Aubade from 'Cherubin', shows off her beautiful trill and is utterly charming.
But as I said before, the arias from 'La Wally', 'Mefistofele', and 'Herodiade' really need more dramatic fire and specificity of character in order to be truly successful, gorgeously and accurately sung as they are. The Jewel Song is appropriately regal and triumphant at its climax but needs more laughter, coquettishness and a sense of being overwhelmed by good fortune - it makes nowhere near the impact that it did in her recent Metropolitan Opera performances of Marguerite, the best live performance I have heard from her yet. And where is 'Il etait un roi de Thule'? Her Norina in 'Don Pasquale' could also use a just bit more knowingness and mischief, but it's a shame that she doesn't do more comic repertory because as her performances of 'L'Elisir D'Amore' both live and on DVD prove, she's a very fine comedienne.
The disc ends with what is now one of Gheorghiu's standard encore pieces, 'Muzica' from the Romanian opera 'Valurile Dunarii' (Waves of the Danube) by Teodorin Grigoriu. This is a heartfelt tribute to the power of music ('my whole life, and all it has given me, my happiness and a long cherished dream') that is obviously very close to Gheorghiu's heart.
I am bothered by the fact that the running time is only 55 minutes for a full price disc. Gheorghiu apparently recorded Micaela's aria for this album but because she had already recorded the role complete for Teldec, it couldn't be included for legal reasons, a real shame. It is also a pity the documentation wasn't edited to take into account that this aria wasn't included, and I would have appreciated more information about the rarities, especially 'Muzica'. Still, there are full texts and translations, and Richard Fairman does provide a brief biography of Gheorghiu up until the point of this recording and fine commentary on her voice.
In the end, I'm not sure whether I would recommend this as a first choice CD if you've never heard Gheorghiu before. You might very well be dazzled by just her voice and technique, but if not, there are other recordings which suit her much better and display the full range of her artistry and dramatic expression - namely the complete recordings of 'La Traviata', 'La Rondine', 'Manon' and 'Tosca', the two duet albums with her equally splendid husband, tenor Roberto Alagna, and her Verdi arias album, among others. Still, 'Arias' is a worthwhile souvenir of a great soprano at the beginning of her career, and it shows just how far she has come since.