Diva Loves Younger Man, Anna Chancellor Does Coward

Angela Gheorghiu’s life is imitating her art.

The celebrated soprano is currently at the Royal Opera in Puccini’s “La Rondine” singing the role of Magda, a woman of experience who hooks up with a younger man.

Gheorghiu knows whereof she sings. She recently split with her tenor husband Roberto Alagna and got together with Romanian countertenor -- and Eurovision contestant -- Florin Cezar Ouatu, who is some 13 years her junior. Now they’ve parted company as well, according to the Romanian press.

Things come to a crash in Puccini’s opera too. There Magda feels guilty about her impure past, so she packs up her rouge pots and leaves her handsome young Ruggero to weep on his ownsome.

Even the composer thought this was a bit of a dud finale. Nowadays it seems even sillier.

Fortunately there are plenty of sumptuous arias, lilting waltzes and rousing set-pieces to keep one happy before the denouement. It doesn’t hurt that Nicolas Joel’s 2002 production, with swirling Art Nouveau designs by Ezio Frigerio, is one of the most beautiful stagings in the Royal Opera’s repertoire.

A wall of Tiffany-style crystal doors decorated with purple vines creates the kind of cool and dreamy hotel lounge you want to spend the rest of your life in.

Bubbling Beautifully

Good-looking tenor Charles Castronovo sings the role of young Ruggero with sensuous Italianate passion, and Edgaras Montvidas provides amusing support as the cynical and world-weary poet Prunier. Conductor Marco Armiliato keeps it bubbling along beautifully in the pit.

Oddly, it’s Gheorghiu herself who lets things down. Although she knows the role well, and has starred in this production many times already, she makes curious mistakes of rhythm. She sings a lot of the music in a disappointing half-voice, and when she lets rip there’s a hint of tarnish on her usually gleaming upper notes.

Perhaps she had other things on her mind. For all that, she still gives the role an inimitable kick of glamour. Let’s hope that things pick up vocally through the run. Rating: ****.

‘Private Lives’

There are relationship complications of a more comical kind at the Gielgud Theatre, where a new laugh-till-it-hurts production of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” has opened starring Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor.

It goes like a firecracker. Coward wrote the role of Elyot for himself, and it’s often performed in a rather clipped and insouciant manner. Stephens gives us an Elyot of sweaty panics, squeaky exclamations and exaggerated terrors.

It feels fresh as paint. The plot revolves around Elyot’s rekindled relationship with his ex-wife, Amanda. Chancellor is a match for her co-star in every respect. Her Amanda isn’t the cool sophisticate we usually see. Here she’s a woman of wild self-dramatization and silly playfulness.

Both actors root the behavior of their characters in real fears and vulnerability, which naturally makes the comedy all the funnier.

It looks perfect in Anthony Ward’s 1930s designs, and director Jonathan Kent keeps it hurtling from climax to climax like a roller-coaster. Rating: *****.

Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the art market, Jorg von Uthmann on Paris arts and Jeffrey Burke on books.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Excellent
****       Very good
***        Average
**         Mediocre
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)