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Angela Gheorghiu's Callas Comparisons

Soprano Angela Gheorghiu conjures the spirit (and the music) of the late diva Maria Callas on her new album.
Cosmin Gogu
/
EMI Classics
Soprano Angela Gheorghiu conjures the spirit (and the music) of the late diva Maria Callas on her new album.

Comparing yourself to a legend is rarely a good idea, and in the case of soprano Angela Gheorghiu, whose new album is a tribute to the late Maria Callas, it's frustratingly inappropriate.

The two opera stars are, for the most part, very different singers who happen to share similar repertoire, yet Homage to Maria Callas seems to invite direct comparisons in a variety of ways.

The photo layout in the fancy, hardback booklet pairs Gheorghiu, in Callas-like poses, with the legendary diva herself on the opposite page. A breezy blurb on the back cover declares "Angela" as "the defining diva of this century," and Callas as "the greatest diva of the last century." Aside from the disc, there's an awkwardly directed video of Gheorghiu and Callas singing a "virtual duet" of Bizet's "Habanera," which fails even as a gimmick. (My colleague Anastasia mused on its worthiness last week.)

And yet this video, with its phrase-by-phrase comparisons, is helpful. It not only provides clear evidence of just how different Callas and Gheorghiu are, but also, oddly enough, proves how Gheorghiu's Homage succeeds on its own.

Callas was opera's supreme vocal actress. Every word she ever sang she imbued with a visceral tone and color befitting the drama at hand, even if the notes were sometimes less than beautiful. Gheorghiu, on the other hand, is all about beauty. In Homage, her gorgeous lyric instrument — creamy with a little smoke and a slightly bottled quality in mid-register that can recall Callas — shines. Just don't look for distinct or deep interpretations of every character.

Here's a good example. Above, listen to Callas sing the aria "Col sorriso" from Bellini's Il Pirata, recorded in September 1958. Each ornament, each detail, each subtle push and pull of the singing line reflects the character Imogene — a woman so stressed she's about to lose it. That's why they call it a "mad scene."

Now hear Gheorghiu in the same aria from Homage. Nobody's going mad here. The singing is pretty enough, but there is no "face" on the character. The beat is foursquare and lines near the end like "a chi tanto, sì a chi tanto per to oprò" sound disengaged.

The Bellini aria is an extreme case, and the composer's specific brand of bel canto was something Callas excelled in. Fortunately, there is plenty of exciting singing on Homage. Try the giddy pyrotechnics in the "Jewel Song" from Faust, or an especially introspective take on Nedda's character in Pagliacci. And for the full Gheorghiu package — including her handsome lower register, sensitive soft singing, and a dramatic build to the final high note — "La mamma morta," a Callas staple given a big boost by the Oscar-winning 1993 film Philadelphia.

Clearly, matching Gheorghiu with Callas seems like a slam dunk to EMI execs who must believe that anything with the late diva's name attached will help sell CDs. Like clockwork, EMI continues to trot out one Callas reissue after another. This year's offering, The Callas Effect, contained a DVD that surely ranks as one of the most ill-conceived (especially on a technical level) documentaries ever created about a major artist.

In any case, the moral of this story is as follows: Let Callas be Callas (nothing can hurt her, even poorly conceived reissues). And by all means, let Gheorghiu be Gheorghiu. She doesn't need Callas — or anyone one else — for help. She's terrific enough on her own.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.