IF ANGELA Gheorghiu was sending out a message to Anna Netrebko that she is still the biggest-pulling soprano in town, then the message would have got across, although time might not be on her side.
Still, she looks great in a dress. She swept on stage in a striking black and white number that looked like it had been plucked from walls of Tate Modern, and the costume changes came thick and fast. The second dress, a pink and black number, only lasted about eight minutes before a red satin low-cut design was introduced. Kate Moss at Top Shop this wasn't.
With the London Symphony Orchestra as vibrant as ever and a relaxed and carefree Ion Marin conducting, the Romanian diva gave the audience what they wanted in some well-worn arias, such as Gianni Schicchi's O mia babbino caro and Un bel di vedremo from Madama Butterfly, a rousing iHabanera from Carmen, plus one or two surprises, notably Lascia ch'io pianga from Handel's Rinaldo.
Marin started with the mish-mash of an Overture from Verdi's Nabucco, Gheorghiu then kicked off with Giordani's Caro mio ben. The Handel was next. Never has anyone managed to get so much from so few words - 23 of them in a five-minute aria. Handel has more repeats than the BBC.
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Gheorghiu, though, is not a Handelian and it showed as she struggled near the end. She might be heading towards mezzo territory with her voice but at the moment she's probably better off leaving the 18th century master to Joyce DiDonato, Anne Sofie von Otter and Sandrine Piau, et al, or going home to listen to Jane Baker and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson to hear how it's really done. Gheorghiu is most definitely more comfortable in the 19th century.
The soulful Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana followed and just to show how impossible it is to remove that opera from its unidentical twin, Pagliacci was represented by Stridono lassu.
The first half ended with an aria that has become associated with la Gheorghiu more than anyone, the wistful Ch'il bel sogno di Doretta from La rondine. When she sings, "Fu la passione! Folle ebbrezza" I can forgive her that ridiculous wave to the audience and orchestra that makes her look like she is rehearsing for the Romanian glove-puppet championships.
Puccini continued after the break with Manon Lescaut's In quelle trine morbide, and then the Carmen. Gheorghiu was certainly dressed for the role, but might be too old to reprise her performance as the lustful cigarette factory girl in Bizet's opera, especially after Anna Caterina Antonacci took the role up a few notches with the most sexually charged Carmen ever at the Royal Opera House a few months ago, one that threatened to cause power cuts all around Covent Garden.
The LSO and Marin were let loose for a magnificent 20 minutes with Tchaikovsky's Fantasy Overture from Romeo and Juliet before O mio babbino caro showed Gheorghiu at her best. This aria suits the concert stage better than it does the opera it comes from, where it seems like a misfit; a serious moment among what is a bedroom farce. Indeed, at the recent production of Gianni Schicchi at Covent Garden, in which Bryn Terfel was magnificent as the conniving old fixer, one person close to me, who might not have known the opera too well, sniggered when Dina Kuznetsova started singing what is one of the greatest arias because they obviously thought it was a piss-take.
Gheorghiu's voice, which doesn't appear as strong as it was even just a couple of years ago, witness her Tosca last year, got lost in Un bel di vedremo, which is sometimes the case in concert performances where the balance between orchestra and voice tends to be weighted more towards the tune than the libretto.
Still, three encores, including a dreadful I could have danced all night (come on Angie, leave the show tunes to Katherine Jenkins and Charlotte Church), was enough proof that Gheorghiu still has one thing Netrebko cannot yet claim: stage presence.
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