Watching the great Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night felt a bit like spending time with a married couple who have just had a colossal argument, or a family dinner at which everyone is diligently and resentfully avoiding the elephant in the room. There was a walking-on-eggshell vibe to the whole affair, with conductor Eugene Kohn struggling to keep the Washington National Opera orchestra in synch with the temperamental but wildly talented singer. He didn’t always succeed. On a program over-stuffed with orchestral bonbons, Gheorghiu’s first aria was a disaster. Handel’s “Ombra mai fu” simply fell apart at a couple of moments and at one point I looked up to see the conductor gripping the singer’s hand, apparently giving her direct, tactile rhythmic guidance.
A Mozart aria wasn’t much better, and the orchestra sounded scrappy in its overtures and light classics (Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” gave the soprano time to change into one of the three frocks she wore for the evening). But Dvorak’s Song to the Moon from “Rusalka” was magical, and in arias by Massenet Gheorghiu seemed to lose her self-consciousness sufficiently to sing with the abandon that, when summoned and channeled, makes her the most exciting soprano today.
But a singer of her stature shouldn’t be giving such a scattershot performance. Too many of the songs were rendered without much real thought or passion until the very end, at which point she turned on the smokiness in the voice and pushed the intensity, as if giving the bare minimum of the “Gheorghiu” sound necessary for the illusion of a genuine performance. I wondered, watching her, if she’s struggling with some serious demons. She has always had a tendency to get a little mannered, a little over fussy in her interpretation. But Saturday, the first time I’ve heard her in recital as opposed to onstage in an opera, was beyond the usual level of solipsism. Is it stage fright? Some kind deep shyness for which she is overcompensating?
It’s frustrating. The sense that she’s in her own world, completely fused with the character she’s enacting, is what makes her so exciting when she’s at her best. But she often seems to disappear into a deeper, more neurotic place, with musical results that are unsatisfying. Tempos are erratic, and the simplicity and clarity of the line is lost. In any case, she didn’t seem to really enjoy herself until after the official program was over. She moved one of her calling cards, Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro,” from the main program into the “encore” category, and it proved some of the best singing of the evening.
But we’ve heard her sing this before. Too many times. Gheorghiu needs someone to challenge her as an artist, to get out more, try new repertoire, learn new roles, and use her formidable skills more broadly. I would hate to see her follow the sad path of Kathleen Battle.