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Romania's divine diva has the voice of the age

The story of what it is that has brought a particular performer along to the road to status as an international star can be a fascinating line of research. A late-night television show not so long ago fired my curiosity about one such -- the Romanian opera singer Angela Gheorghiu.

She was re-visiting her roots in the company of Alan Yentob for a BBC2 special, and came across as a fascinating character, not to mention a stunningly striking and glamourous individual. I wanted to know more.

Her tale begins in 1965, in Adjud, a town the size of Sligo, some 200 miles to the north-east of Bucharest, just after Nicolae Ceausescu had come to power. Her father was a train driver with a healthy interest in music. At the time, the American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein had a show on Romanian TV each Sunday lunchtime -- Bernstein was the first to exploit the medium for the promotion of classical music -- and Angela's dad would tune in with his two daughters.

That got them started, and Elena and Angela Burlacu became child celebrities in their home town. Angela's potential was acknowledged when, at the age of 14, she was sent to boarding school in Bucharest, where music, ballet and drama were all on the curriculum. From there, she progressed to the Academy of Music, and while still a student, married her first husband, Andre Gheorghiu.

She graduated with a first-class honours degree; her career path was well mapped out. She became very popular in Romania, though there seemed little scope to expand her horizons, such were the politics of the time.

But Ceausescu was overthrown, and suddenly all bets were off. An agent -- a Romanian exile -- called from Frankfurt; she got Angela a gig in Amsterdam, and from there it was on to London, and all points west.

Move on to 1992, Angela is singing Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme in Vienna. She meets the Franco-Italian tenor, Roberto Alagna. Two years later, at Covent Garden, she's Violetta to his Alfredo in Verdi's La Traviata. The chemistry wasn't confined to the stage. But Andre was back in Bucharest, and there was a Mrs Alagna in Paris.

Not long after, Alagna's wife succumbed to a brain tumour. Angela divorced Andre. She married her tenor in New York in 1996, where they were both there playing in La Boheme at the Met. The deed was done by the opera-mad mayor of the city, one Rudy Giuliani.

Still, Angela kept the name Gheorghiu. It's famous in Romanian musical circles; her former father-in-law made his name as a violinist, and his brother Valentin is a pianist and composer, who turned 80 a week ago, on the birthday he shares with Johann Sebastian Bach. It made artistic sense, or as Angela has put it, her using the name continues the Gheorghiu line.

While the Gheorghiu/Alagna double act has written headlines over the decade or so since, her own career stands very much on its own two feet. She has the most divine voice, the quintessential lyric soprano, able to apply itself to anything the repertoire demands, neither too searingly soaring, nor questionable when what is required is something altogether more subtle.

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She wouldn't be a diva if there weren't a few spats along the way, and there have been rows that would make your toes curl. The bold Roberto matched her in that regard when he flounced off the stage at La Scala, when he heard the boos from the cheap seats (where they want to hear opera at its best, and neither care for nor can afford prawn sandwiches!).

That said, Angela Gheorghiu has the voice of the age. For me, she is at her best with the great songs that Puccini put out there -- Vissi d'arte from Tosca, or the sumptuous O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi. But she can cut it right across the repertoire.

There's a CD that brings all of this together: Angela Gheorghiu Diva (EMI, 7243 5 57705 2 3). I'm biased, all right, but I would submit it is absolutely gorgeous. For me, at this point in our musical enjoyment, Angela Gheorghiu is simply the best.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' from 10.30 each Saturday morning on RTE Lyric FM

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