The National, March 23. 2009
Sophia Money-Coutts
Gala operatics delight the house
Angela Gheorghiu is often referred to in the same breath as the sopranos Maria Callas and Kathleeen Battle as the grandest of opera divas. On Saturday, she was billed alongside the German tenor Jonas Kaufman for the opening gala of the sixth Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival.

While the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra played a soaring rendition of Verdi’s overture to Nabucco for the opener conducted by the Romanian-born Ion Marin, a sense of expectation hovered in the Emirates Palace auditorium as the audience waited for a glimpse of the famously fiery star. Suddenly, Kaufman and Gheorghiu swept on stage and together launched into Parigi, O Cara from the last scene of La Traviata, written by Verdi, whose operas Gheorghiu has a particular affinity for.

It was a suitably stretching and darting piece for the versatile duo to kick off with. From there, the programme skipped through 10 more operatic pieces, with the two stars alternately appearing solo, together or not at all when the orchestra and Marin were left to play as Gheorghiu quickly leapt into another sparkly outfit (three in all) in a manner befitting a diva.

Gheorghiu was breathtaking; her rich vocal range outstanding. In the second half of the evening, her performance of Madame Butterfly underlined her consummate professionalism. Un Bel di Vedremo is a piece she has sung hundreds of times, and yet here she still smiled her way freshly through it, the final top notes unwavering in confidence. Little wonder that her recording of the opera reached the number one slot of the classical music chart in Britain earlier this month.

With Kaufman she was ably matched. For his first solo, he sang Massenet’s Pourquoi me Réveiller, a melancholic lamentation of a poet recalling happier times. Kaufman is renowned especially for the technical brilliance of his French and Italian repertoire and it was a performance that demonstrated why his international operatic star has risen so quickly.

The pair have performed together on various occasions before, and their chemistry is engaging. During Va, Je T’ai Pardonné from Gounoud’s Romeo et Juliette, their interplay onstage brought the characters to life. They’re not perhaps the freshest couple to portray the ill-fated young lovers but Gheorghiu pulled it off with suitable aplomb. The final performance on the programme, O Soave Fanciulla from La Bohème, saw them walk across the stage to the side and end with a kiss to cheers of “bravo” from the audience who immediately leapt to their feet in appreciative applause.

Meanwhile, Marin conducted the orchestra with immense grace, shiny hair swinging about his shoulders as he bounced around his platform. The most moving moment of the programme was, in fact, when the singers were offstage and Marin was left with the orchestra to play the Italian composer Pietro Mascagni’s Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, a sensationally stirring string piece and the top tear-jerker of the night.

But it was during the encore that the two singers truly came alive, their performances more spontaneous than anything that preceded them. Gheorghiu kicked off proceedings with a refreshing canter through My Fair Lady’s I Could Have Danced All Night. She skittered across the stage, toying with a pink rose that she had been handed from the audience. Kaufman then appeared solo with the Hungarian composer Franz Lehár’s Dein ist Mein Ganzes Herz, and plaintive violin backing. Two more standing ovations were called for as the duo then sang again, performing Non Ti Scordar Di Me by De Curtis and La Traviata’s Libiamo (Marin gamely jumped in and stole a line from Kaufman), finishing where the night had begun, with Verdi.

A starry, triumphant performance from all and a promising opening to the festival.

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