Many critics have hailed soprano Angela Gheorghiu as one of the opera world’s most electrifying performers. Skilled in delivering memorable interpretations of romantic heroines in the French and Italian repertoire, the Romanian-born vocalist is considered among the ranks of up-and-coming stars for the twenty-first century, on par with Renee Fleming, Bryn Terfel, and Cecilia Bartoli. Gheorghiu has won accolades for her dramatic talents as well as her voice, which has been described as having an “attractive, slightly smoky quality” by American Record Guide writer Vivian Liff. Opera News contributor John Allison commented on the lack of new divas in the world of opera as the great sopranos who have preceded Gheorghiu go into semi-retirement or no longer take on the ingénue roles. Allison asserted that “Gheorghiu, with her animated beauty, a smooth and dark-toned soprano that is at once firm and vulnerable, plus more stage presence than many of her predecessors, has arrived at just the right moment.”
Gheorghiu was born c. 1966 and raised in the town of Adjud, Romania. Her father was a railway motorman, and she and her sister Elena were passionate about singing at a very early age. The sisters were encouraged by their parents. “While we were growing up, there was always classical music on the radio, all genres, even master classes by Leonard Bernstein,” Gheorgiu told Allison in Opera News. “When opera was broadcast, my sister and I would play at being opera singers. We’d give concerts to anyone who would listen.” Both were recognized by local teachers, for Romania was a communist dictatorship under Premier Nicolae Ceausescu during this period, and budding talent in the arts, sciences, and athletics was generously trained and supported by the state. At the age of 14, Gheorghiu moved to Bucharest, Romania’s capital city, to study at the George Enescu Lyceum.
Despite the repressive atmosphere of the Ceausescu regime, Gheorghiu recalled her teen years as idyllic. The Lyceum course was rigorously academic and was combined with intensive musical training. She was required to study an instrument—she chose the piano—before she even began formal voice lessons. “I wish for everybody in this world to have my kind of training,” she told Allison. “It was possible to get an idea about the profession we wanted.” Gheorghiu studied under teacher Mia Barbu before going on to the Bucharest Academy of Music, the top conservatory in Romania. Her course of study there included musicianship and languages as well as voice, and as a student in the late 1980s she performed in her first opera when the academy staged La Bohème, the Puccini classic. Gheorghiu was cast as Mimi, its doomed heroine.
Gheorghiu was 23 years old when she finished at the academy with first-class honors in 1990. It was a fortuitous year for a Romanian to begin a career with international aspirations, for in the last weeks of 1989 the Ceausescu regime fell. Gheorghiu auditioned for
Born c. 1966 in Adjud, Romania; daughter of a railway motorman; married Roberto Alagna (an opera singer), April 1996. Education: Graduated from Bucharest Music Academy, 1990.
Made debut as Zerlina in Don Giovanni with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London, England, 1992; signed with Decca/London Records; debuted in La Bohème at Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY, 1993; made first record for EMI Classics with Roberto Alagna, Duets and Arias, 1996; signed with EMI Classics, 1998; repertoire includes La Traviata, Carmen, Cherubin, L’Elisir d’amore, and Luisa Miller.
Awards: Gramophone Awards, Best Opera Recording and Record of the Year, Choc du Monde de la Musique (France), two Diapason d’or awards, and Deutsche Schallplattenpreise (Germany), all for Puccini: La Rondine, all 1997.
Addresses: Record company —EMI/Angel, 304 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10010.
London’s Covent Garden and made her first appearance as Zerlina in Don Giovanni with the Royal Opera there. It was also her first stage appearance outside Romania. She debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City in 1993, and went on to play Micaela in Bizet’s Carmen at the Monnaie in Brussels the following year. This performance attracted some notice from Opera News writer Joel Kasow, who called her “the latest in a line of sweet-voiced, well-schooled Romanian sopranos with temperament to burn.”
In 1994 Gheorghiu returned to Covent Garden as Nina, the ingénue of Massenet’s Cherubin. Another Opera News critic, Tom Sutcliffe, witnessed this performance and found her “deliciously pure-voiced” as well as “clear of focus, penetrating and sweet” in the role. Later that year she debuted as Violetta at a Covent Garden production of La Traviata, the Verdi standard. The event was a much-anticipated one conducted by Sir Georg Solti, was telecast on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and recorded for the Decca/London label. Gheorghiu won tremendous accolades for her performance, and famously moved Solti, as the conductor admitted to Opera News contributor Allison, to “tears. I had to go out. The girl is wonderful. She can do anything. She is extremely musical in that the music dictates her emotions and that’s something I’ve seen very rarely.”
The La Traviata recording became an instant classic, and Gheorghiu’s career began a remarkable and rapid ascent. The Covent Garden engagement was also significant for a more personal reason for the soprano: she met tenor Roberto Alagna, and the two became almost inseparable from the evening they first spoke. Madly in love, they quickly became one of the opera world’s most famous pairings. Three years Gheorghiu’s senior, Alagna is an Italian who grew up in France and was “discovered” while singing in a café in Paris. His wife died of a brain tumor in 1994, just three months before he met Gheorghiu.
Gheorghiu and Alagna soon began working together in both the studio and onstage. Liff, writing in American Record Guide, called it a fairy-tale romance “custom-made for our marketing age.” Their first performance together in the United States came in the spring of 1996 when they were cast in La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera House in the roles of Rodolfo and Mimi. It was Alagna’s Met debut, and was extensively publicized by his Manágement company. Posters appeared over large sections of Manhattan touting him as the “tenor of our generation.” Adding to the drama, the pair were married by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani just before opening night. Later that year they made their joint Covent Garden debut in a special concert, performing the Micaela-Don Jose aria from Carmen.
Tragically, Gheorghiu’s good fortune in both romance and career was truncated by a personal loss in 1996: her sister Elena, also a soprano, died at the age of 30. This tragedy contributed to the already fable-like aura surrounding the singer and her husband, and they were gaining a joint reputation as the opera world’s most tempestuous pair as well. During the 1997-98 Met season, Gheorghiu was cast again as Micaela in Carmen, but had a falling-out with the Met’s general Manáger, Joseph Volpe, over a blonde wig the role specified; one night, she refused to wear it, and Volpe sent her understudy out in her place. Furthermore, she and Alagna reportedly objected to the sets planned for a production of La Traviata and were not hired.
Despite these issues, Gheorghiu won strong critical praise for her recordings, which began with Alagna in Duets & Arias, a 1996 release with the Covent Garden Orchestra. It included “O soave fanciulla” from La Boheme, the cherry duet from L’Amico Fritz, and even a number from the Broadway musical West Side Story. “The pleasure lies in hearing young, supple voices in mint condition—singing while rapture is still careless, before stress, jet travel and mistakes in repertory have begun to take their toll,” opined Time reviewer Martha Duffy of this record. “The pair are sublimely sensitive to each other, and more important, to the composers.”
Gheorghiu also made a solo record in 1996 titled Arias, featuring the Turin Symphony Orchestra and selections from Faust and Mefistofele. American Record Guide reviewer Ralph V. Lucano remarked favorably upon the promise of some of the tracks, stating that Gheorghiu’s “voice, floaty and velvety, curls affectionately around each musical phrase; the top notes are ethereally lovely.” She delivered another impressive turn as Micaela at the Met under the direction of Franco Zeffirelli. The lavish Carmen production included live horses onstage, and Desmond Arthur, writing in American Record Guide, asserted that “Gheorghiu’s performance as Micaela was gripping.… The soprano created a character who is sunny and innocent but never cloying of saccharine. Micaela’s famous aria, which usually sounds hackneyed, became a deeply moving account of the character’s terror.”
With her husband, Gheorghiu made a much-praised recording of Puccini’s La Rondine with the London Symphony Orchestra. The record, which enjoyed impressive sales, was commended by Opera News reviewer Bill Zakariasen, who found that Gheorghiu “has a welcome forwardness of style and an edge that traces Puccini’s line incisively.” The record won several industry awards, including Gramophone honors for both Best Opera Recording of 1997 and Record of the Year.
In 1998 Gheorghiu signed an exclusive contract with Alagna’s label, EMI Classics. The deal took four days of meetings in Geneva, Switzerland, to negotiate, and prompted EMI Classics president Richard Lyttelton to call the pair “the center of EMI’s opera plans,” as he told Billboard writer Bradley Bambarger. “This is an enormous, multimillion-dollar deal—one of the biggest ever in opera, to my knowledge.”
Gheorghiu appeared with Alagna in early 1998 at the Met in the title roles of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, and the following year released a recording of Verdi’s duets with the Berlin Philharmonic. The pair also appeared as Adina and Nemorino in a production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore. The attractive, lovestruck couple were a favorite of audiences, and were heavily promoted by their Manágement companies and EMI. “With her ductile, brilliantly colored soprano, Gheorghiu often shines in the Italian repertory, where Alagna’s slightly dry timbre and pinched upper register are more mercilessly exposed,” Opera News writer Hugh Canning wrote about their joint performances. “He, on the other hand, outclasses her in his understanding of the language and stylistic idiom of the French operas they have sung and recorded—Romeo et Juliette, Massenet’s Werther— where Gheorghiu’s timbre and temperament seem excessively vibrant.”
Gheorghiu began to take in more solo work in 2000. “We are like three artists,” she explained in a London Daily Telegraph interview with Norman Lebrecht. “There is Roberto, there is Angela, and there is the third artist, the couple. That is not easy to Manáge.” They performed the following year together in a Covent Garden production of Puccini’s Tosca. The event was immortalized with an EMI recording of their performance, as well as a DVD release directed by Benoit Jacquot that showed the pair at work both onstage and off. “Gheorghiu’s passion and beauty are ideal for Tosca,” Opera News critic William V. Madison wrote of her first interpretation of the exceedingly dramatic—even by opera standards—title role. “The role’s vocal hazards don’t faze her; her instrument remains supple, radiant, alive to the character’s every thought,” Madison remarked, and also deemed her “one of the most sensuous Toscas imaginable.”
Other recordings from Gheorghiu include My World: Songs from around the Globe, in which she performs classics from 15 different countries in languages that range from her native Romanian to Japanese. Lucano, writing in American Record Guide, commended her language abilities in the Romance tongues—to which Romanian belongs—but noted that Gheorghiu’s English and German abilities are a bit flawed. Yet, Lucano granted, “the singing here is so ravishingly beautiful that it disarms criticism. Gheorghiu’s voice is soft and warm and voluptuous.” The critic ultimately dubbed the recording “captivating even when her elocution is awkward.” Gheorghiu has also recorded Mysterium, a collection of sacred arias, songs, and hymns performed with the Romanian National Choir that features performances of Mendelssohn’s “On Wings of Song,” Puccini’s “Salve Regina,” and the Christmastime carol “Adeste, Fideles!” She also ventures farther into the bel canto repertoire that began with L’Elisir d’amore via Casta Diva, a 2002 release that features arias from The Barber of Seville, William Tell, and other operas.
Gheorghiu is one in a long line of estimable sopranos from Romania that includes Viorica Ursuleac, lleana Cotrubas, and Hariclea Darclee, the first-ever soprano to perform Tosca. She and Alagna live in Switzerland, where their family includes Ornella, Alagna’s daughter from his first marriage, and the daughter of Gheorghiu’s late sister. The couple are adamant that their shared passion and career has been personally enriching. “I rediscover Angela in every new role,” Alagna told a contributor to People. Gheorghiu agreed, telling the interviewer that “We don’t get bored,” to which her husband added, “So we advise everyone to sing.”
Verdi: La Traviata, Decca, 1995.
Arias, Decca, 1996.
(With Roberto Alagna) Duets & Arias, EMI, 1996.
Bizet: Carmen, Teldec, 1996.
Puccini: La Rondine, EMI, 1997.
(With Alagna) Donizetti: L’Elisir d’amore, Decca, 1997.
Verdi: Arias, EMI Classics, 1998.
My World: Songs from around the Globe, London, 1998.
(With Roberto Alagna) Verdi per due, EMI Classics, 1998.
Puccini: II trittico, EMI Classics, 1999.
Puccini: La Bohème, Decca, 1999.
Verdi Heroines, Decca, 2000.
Casta Diva, EMI, 2001.
Mysterium: Sacred Arias, Songs, Hymns, Decca, 2001.
Puccini: Tosca, EMI Classics, 2001.
American Record Guide, September/October, 1996, pp. 265, 269; January/February, 1997, p. 75; September/October, 1998, p. 300; March/April, 1999, p. 243; January/February, 2002, p. 250.
Billboard, February 28, 1998, p. 1.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), February 16, 2000, p. 26.
Independent (London, England), March 11, 1996, p. 6.
New York Times, March 26, 2002, p. E5.
Observer (London, England), December 9, 2001, p. 8.
Opera News, February 19, 1994, p. 38; May 1994, p. 52; January 6, 1996, p. 48; July 1996, p. 50; September 1996, p. 61; March 22, 1997, p. 24; August 1997, p. 32; February 14, 1998, p. 40; June 1998, p. 54; October 1999, p. 63; September 1999, p. 99; September 2000, p. 90; October 2000, p. 40; July 2001, p. 72; November 2001, p. 58.
People, June 21, 1999, p. 141.
San Francisco Chronicle, July 19, 1998, p. 50.
Sensible Sound, November, 1998, p. 100.
Time, April 29, 1996, p. 83.
Gheorghiu, Angela, admired Romanian soprano;b. Adjud, Sept. 7, 1965. She was a student of Mia Burbu at the George Enescu Lyceum in Bucharest, and then pursued training at the Bucharest Cons, (graduated, 1988). Following engagements in Romania, she made her first appearance at London’s Covent Garden in 1992 as Zerlina. On Dec. 4, 1993, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in N.Y. as Mimi. She returned to Covent Garden in 1994 as Violetta. In 1995 she was engaged as Gounod’s Juliette at the Washington (D.C.) Opera and Verdi’s Desdemona at the Salzburg Festival. In 1996 she returned to the Metropolitan Opera as Micaela, and that same year married Roberto Alagna. She sang again at Covent Garden in 1997 as Adina. Her return to the Metropolitan Opera in 1998 to sing Juliette to Alagna’s Romeo elicited critical accolades. They reprised those roles at the Lyric Opera in Chicago in 1999. Among her other esteemed roles are Liu, Nina in Massenet’s Cherubin, Suzel in L’Amico Fritz, and Magda in La Rondine.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire