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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Monserrat Caballe: One Of The Greatest Voices Of The 20th Century

I have to say, up front, that any attempt at objectivity on my part, when writing of Monserrat Caballé, would be futile. We are dealing with a realm of greatness here that is rare, and—as in the case of Zinka Milanov, it is hard to know where to begin.   Probably with at least a little background.

Monserrat Caballé was born in Barcelona, in 1933, and studied at the Liceu Conservatory, graduating with honors in 1954. Her professional debut was in Basel, Switzerland, as Mimi in 1956.  She spent the next two years at the Basel Opera—with some outside appearances in Germany—doing mainly lyric roles, appropriate for her age.  She was only 23 at the time of her debut.  Returning to Barcelona in 1962, she began to expand her repertoire a bit, taking on the somewhat bigger role of Arabella, having done a Salomé earlier in Germany.  A tour a Mexico followed, but  Caballé was to wait until 1965 before her first international breakthrough in New York’s Carnegie Hall, where she substituted for Marilyn Horne in a concertized version of Lucrezia Borgia.  She was a great success, and the rise from that point on was near-meteoric.  After a Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier, it was only a short while before her Met debut in 1965, in Faust, and then to the Philadelphia Lyric in Andrea Chenier, then to the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Trovatore and Bellini’s Il Pirata.

From then on, her fame was considerable, and it was on to the big roles.  Her repertoire came to include Otello, Norma, Un Ballo, Don Carlo, and a good number of older operas form the period of High Romanticism, in which she was particularly successful. The career from that point on was huge, and can be consulted in any of a series of on line biographies.  Suffice it say that it has been a career so illustrious that few can match it!  She has received many awards and honors, from many countries.
That Caballé possessed one of the greatest of voices is simply beyond question.  What can be discussed, however, are the quality and development of that voice. I have had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of a gentleman whose knowledge of opera in general, and of great singers in particular (many of whom he has known personally) is truly extraordinary.  I mentioned to him recently that I was going to write about Caballé, and he offered to research for me the critical comments that greeted her in America, first at her Met debut, and then in later performances.  What he found was most interesting and pertinent.  Caballe’s voice was not immediately seen, nor was it particularly ever seen, as simply a huge voice. It is not really a huge voice.  It is certainly big enough, but it is more a question of quality, production, and exemplary technique, all joined to give that impression.

 Her first roles were lyric roles, as I mentioned at the beginning.  At her Met debut, she received a good enough review for her work in Faust, but the critics said it was not her best role. However, they praised her “gleaming” high notes which could easily be heard in the house.  In 1967 she did an Otello, but the critic felt that her voice was too small for the role.  It could of course simply be the case that she was developing slowly and carefully, an opinion to which I personally hold.  She certainly is a very intelligent and well trained singer, who, in a word, has always known exactly what she was doing.  Later, in 1972, at a Met Gala, she got a really fine review for her Manon Lescaut duet with Plácido Domingo.  Later, she finally found the extraordinary reviews which have become fairly commonplace, starting with a terrific review for NormaThis critical glance back at reviews is united by a common thread, and that is development!  I would say this is very important, even crucial to the understanding of the Caballé voice. Many thanks to my friend for this research!  Let us take a look at a role that goes back to the very beginning of her career; Mimí:

This is, of course, simply beautiful, and even though this particular performance comes at a later moment in her career, the lovely young and lyric voice is very much in evidence.  It is not in any way “huge.”  That is an illusion, primarily, based on perfect placement, ringing clarity, and a remarkable ease of production.  No stress, no strain, as easy as speaking, and it can be heard everywhere.

The voice did of course develop somewhat in color and intensity over time, and she soon was being heard in big, big roles, and the impression of size and power was always there, but again, there is more of perfect placement and superb technique to thank than any Nilsson-type size.  Caballé began to take on some old and unusual operas which contained showpiece arias that proved perfect vehicles for her particular voice.  Here is a spectacular “Non fu sogno,” from Verdi’s I Lombardi:

Now, isn’t that something! Again, the impression is huge, but it’s not that the voice per se has changed so much from what it was at the beginning of the career. This is the Caballé of the huge impression, the extraordinary voice, the very operatic sound of the High Romanticism of the mid-19th century.  What is truly amazing, at least to me, however, is that this wonderful soprano, at the very peak of her fame and full vocal maturity (to say the least, at age 63, when the following concert took place) can hold a huge audience spell-bound with some of the most beautiful, lyrical, sustained, elegant, dream-like music ever written, the astonishing “Willow, Willow,” from Otello:

The Great Monserrat Caballé!  I can hardly add more.




Nate said...

Thanks, Edmund, for celebrating the vocal artistry of Monserrat Caballe. As you know, I'm a great fan of her singing as well. I would only add to what you write that she is an exceptionally versatile singer, not only excelling in bel canto roles as well as Verdi and Puccini, but even in Strauss and French opera. And she performs it all well, which is doubly remarkable. Further, her vocal fach is difficult to pinpoint, and this too often suggests the sign of a great and multidimensional artist.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thanks, Nate! Always a pleasure to hear from you! Yes, this is one of those articles where I wish to God I had about 10 pages to fill. There is SO MUCH to say about this extraordinary singer! Your point about the difficulty of nailing the vocal fach is spot-on, and I think "multidimensional" says it very well! Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

I was actually quite surprised to see that she made a recording with Freddy Mercury. I must say I didn't care much for it, but apparently a lot of people did. Not sure I get it, entirely.

J.D. Hobbes

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for writing in, Mr. Hobbes. I have to admit, on this one, that I don't really know much about it. Perhaps one of our readers will know. I can check into it and see if I can learn anything. I feel I should know, but I have to be honest and say I don't:-)

Hildegerd said...

She has had an extra ordinare carriere, so wonderful! <3

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much! I appreciate your comment! She is a truly extraordinary singer!

Darren Seacliffe said...

Yes, you're right. Ms. Caballe certainly is one of the greatest sopranos the world has ever seen in the later half of the 20th century. Her characterizations might not be as vivid as Callas', she might not be as technically skilled as Sutherland and she may not be as dignified as the great Gencer was but in one, she offered each of these 3 qualities in her performances and her singing.

Ms. Caballe did have a wide repertoire. She has sung Puccini, Verdi, verismo, bel canto etc. but of these, I'll say that the field which she was strongest in is still bel canto. She sang the Verdi, Puccini and verismo roles beautifully and she was techically skilled but there was something lacking in her performances. No, I won't say that she can't act but rather, there are other sopranos like Tebaldi, Callas, Oliveiro etc. who could make more out of these roles than she did. Their singing had an intensity which Caballe didn't really have.

Edmund, I'm sure Mimi, Desdemona and Griselda are nice roles to hear Caballe in, but they're not her best. Caballe, from my experience, was best in the bel canto roles. I'll say she was better than even the great Sutherland herself. For one, she not only had the same technical proficiency to take on those difficult roles Sutherland did, she could also act. I've heard her in Lucrezia Borgia. She literally owned the role. Here's one of the finest moments from the Carnegie Hall performance with a tenor as great as she was, Alain Vanzo:

One more thing I'd like to add was that though Caballe did give many great performances in the opera house and made several noteworthy recordings, as a singer, one of her biggest achievements actually lay outside opera. She and her husband, Bernabe Marti, made a recording of zarzuela duets that is among the golden recordings of the genre. She was a fine zarzuela singer. I'd like to present my favorite number from the disc:
(This zarzuela duet can bring the house down with less-than-great singers, let alone with Ms.Caballe)

The last thing about the duet she sang with Freddie Mercury. The story goes like this: Freddie Mercury felt that by singing a number with an opera singer, he could improve his image as an artist. He decided to sing with Ms. Caballe. He said that he chose her because she was a soprano whose singing he liked very much but I don't know for certain if that was true. She accepted his invitation. (There was once a time where the pop music singers respected their peers from the opera world. A shame that this is no longer the case anymore) I think this was at the Barcelona Olympics. Ms. Caballe was one of the artists whom Spain had invited to help support the Games. She recorded the duet with Mercury there and then. From what I read, the performance was very successful for both of them. Mercury brought his art to a higher level and Ms. Caballe became better known.

Having heard several of Caballe's performances in operas from bel canto to Puccini, I can't say that she owned any of the roles she sang but I can assure anybody else that she was a truly great singer who did well in them. Besides Ms. Callas and Ms. Gencer, there are few sopranos who could succeed as much as Caballe in as wide a repertoire. Therein lies her true greatness.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, Darren, for an erudite and most interesting comment! And thanks for answering Mr. Hobbes' question about the Freddy Mercury performance. I really do appreciate and admire the breadth and depth of your knowledge--a tremendous addition to the blog! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I loved your selection for Caballé. That "Willow Song"!! I always think when I hear her sing that if you had to translate her singing into food that hers would be cream. I have the Joan Sutherlandversion of "Norma" and Caballé is one of the few sopranos whose voice is not shown up by Sutherland's own.

You will not be surprised to hear she is well loved in Basel and
appears here again and again. Last time she was here was autumn 2011
and sang at a tennis match (!) which I happened to be present at. She was given a huge ovation, before and after she sang, although I thought the vibrato on the high notes was very oticeable. Also her physical condition is very challenged now.

A super blog. Thanks a million.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you Sally. What a nice comment! Most interesting to hear about her popularity in Basel, which makes sense, actually, since that is where he career began, basically. I will always think of cream now when I hear the Willow Song:-) And yes, she was born in '33, so in 2011, she would have been 78 years old. Thanks again, my friend, for a great comment!

Anonymous said...

Yes ED I just read the critic Osborne's review, as far as her early SINGING in Otello. She was only 34 years old and he felt the voice size and constant "pretty notes" was the draw back in that role but most voices get bigger with age and I suppose hers did also. I heard her three years after that in 1970 with Gedda in Traviata and then a few years later again in Recital. It was a good medium sized lyric Soprano by then in the early 1970's and very clear. She gave a fine recital in Pasadena Calif. Her control and shimmering quality was so apparent and generous. I heard some clear tones that reminded me somewhat of Freni, also high Piano soft notes that Zinka could also spin out so well but Caballe was not as dramatic. Her review in Norma was just amazing! I just read she recently suffered a mild stroke and hopefully has well recovered. You know she was a good friend of Richard Tucker's and in fact the Tucker family asked her too sing at Sara Tucker's (Richard's widow) funeral in 1985 and she gladly did. When Tucker last sang in Juive (Dec22) 1974 in Spain, just a couple of weeks before he died she was in attendance and one of the very last pictures taken of Tucker was backstage with her just after he sang, taken in his dressing room. They where smiling happily, then on Dec.24th, two days later he sang in Carmen, Don Jose and went back to the states. He died on Jan 8th, 1975.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, my friend, for that important information. I am very grateful for you help on this blog. Your knowledge is simply stunning!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article on the great Montserrat Caballe. People deservedly call her voice “angelic” because of her warm and transparent timbre, and it seems strange that such a timbre is combined with big volume of the voice . She was 63 in the third video (“Willow”) and her voice was still beautiful. Perhaps with her soft timbre it’s easier to sound great at this age, but most likely the main reason is perfect technique. By the way, Caballe is the main example of futility of attempts of modern directors :) They often say that "the time of ‘big’ prima-donnas who can only stand still and sing” is gone, but in fact Caballe proved with her extraordinary career and success, that voice is the main thing in the opera. There was a video of her singing and dancing Salome! Brave artist and a good sence of humor.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, Natalie! Great comment and you are absolutely right. Standing there and singing, especially when one has one of the voices of the century, is still what it's all about. There are some European stage directors who think they can turn opera into cinema, but they can't. It's still about great singers, some of whom are fat (who cares?) and it is opera. Opera is a very particular, very, very, old art form, and it works perfectly well as it is. Some choreographers (especially MacMillan) tried to turn ballet into cinema a few decades ago, and people hated it. I post a fair number of ballet videos, and the one thing people still want to see, if Youtube is anything to judge by, is beautiful ballerinas in tutus doing classical ballet. Caballe doing the dance of the 7 veils? Now there's sight to behold:-) :-)

Anonymous said...

"Caballe doing the dance of the 7 veils? Now there's sight to behold:-) :-)"


Edmund St. Austell said...

Бог с ней! У нее есть мужество, нет сомнений! Я должен сказать, однако, что это не так просто, чтобы посмотреть :-) Теперь, если бы Анна Нетребко....... :-)

Verdiwagnerite said...

A fantastic voice and great artistry.
Thank you Edmund for another great post.
Caballe's voice has a wonderful warmth - "cream" is a good word to describe the colour of her voice and the control when she sings quietly is amazing, too.
As you (or somebody else said in the comments)it all starts with the voice.
A wonderfully versatile singer who has had a very long career.

Thanks again,


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you Kate. Yes, indeed, it all starts with the voice. Well said indeed! Thank you very much for the comment. Much appreciated!

Anonymous said...

Scott T said: Caballe was the main reason I fell in love with opera. Hearing her as Norma at the Met in 1973 was spellbinding; I shall never forget that experience. The voice literally went thru your body like a column of sound..the tone and depth of sound spellbinding. Next heard her 1977 Turandot with Pavarotti in SF. Her voice had grown in dramatic weight critic wrote "the hi c's could be heard in Peking!" heard her in San Antonio in recital with the great Miguel Zanetti at the piano. Then in Dallas with Horne in duets and solos! Last time I heard her live as Tosca at Met again with Pavarotti...
Own most of her recordings and videos. Her Aroldo recorded in concert at Carneige I rank as one of het best, along with the Muti Aida, Don Carlo, Norma etc.
Loved her in dramatic verismo as well, and her lower register was riveting as she matured and had wonderful tone and startling volume.
I truly believe she had the finest voice I have ever heard and I have admired and loved her for years.