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Montserrat Caballé sings Bellini and Verdi arias
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
I puritani
Son vergin vezzosa [5.92]
O rendetemi la speme … Qui la voce sua soave [10.27]
Tornó il riso sul suo aspetto … Vien diletto [6.27]
Ambrosian Opera Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. June-July 1979, London
Il pirata
Oh! S’io potessi dissipar le nubi [4.14]
Col sorrisso d’innocenza [3.28]
Qual suono … Oh sole! Ti vela [4.04]
Chorus and Orchestra of RAI Rome/Gianandrea Gavazzeni
rec. July 1970, Rome
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Qui Radames verra. O patria mia [6.54]
Don Carlo
Tu che le vanitá [11.05]
La forza del destino
Pace, pace mio Dio [5.37]
Una machia e qui tutt’ora [6.30]
Era piu calma? … Mia madre aveva una povera ancella [10.08]
Ave Maria [4.25]
Various orchestras and conductors.
rec. 1971, 1974, London
EMI CLASSICS 6828722 [79.03]

This issue celebrates the eightieth birthday of Montserrat Caballé (b. 1933), one of the outstanding singers of the second half of the twentieth century. In the course of the second part of her career she made no fewer than twenty-eight studio opera recordings for various major labels. These spanned the bel canto, lyrico spinto and verismo genres as well as many recital discs. There are innumerable pirate recordings. Yet hers was a career that may never have escaped from the minor opera houses of Europe were it not for a piece of good luck. This involved her being asked to stand in for the then emerging American mezzo Marilyn Horne in a performance of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia for theAmerican Opera Society in 1966. By that year Caballé had been singing professionally for ten years and in diverse repertoire that even extended to the likes of Strauss’s thickly orchestrated Salome. She was also at home learning the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier for Glyndebourne when the call came. I recount, in full, the background and consequences of the success of her performance that night in my review of the recording of Lucrezia Borgia made shortly afterwards by RCA (see review).
Caballé served her operatic stage apprenticeship at the Basle Opera where she sang a very varied repertoire that included the classic Mozart roles of Pamina, Donna Anna and Fiordiligi, as well as the distinctly heavier parts of Aida, Salome, Tatyana and the Tannhäuser Elisabeth. In a small and well-run ensemble house it was ideal preparation for the extended career she was to enjoy. She graduated to the Vienna State Opera in 1960, and the Barcelona Liceu in 1962. However, it was her performance in the title role of Lucrezia Borgia that caused an audience furore and launched her extended international and recording career.
By the age of twenty-nine Caballé was mistress of sixty roles. Consequently she did not restrict herself to any particular recording company, or to the bel canto repertoire in her many visits to the studio. Her varied vocal strengths led to her recording for Decca, DG, RCA and Spanish labels as well as EMI. Her biographers (Robert Pullen and Stephen Taylor, Indigo, 1994) list her extensive discography (pp. 431-436) which, although I haven’t counted, I believe exceeds any other singer in the post 78 rpm era.
In this collection Caballé exhibits her security of bel canto coloratura, with rapid decorations and limpid tone interspersed with well-enunciated words. There is even a vestigial trill (Tr.1), a skill in which she was no match to her friend and rival in this territory, Joan Sutherland. The evenness of Caballé’s tone, and immaculate technique across her wide vocal range, allied to innate musicality, make her singing in this repertoire at least the equal of that of the Australian diva in the post Second World War period. Her voice is much preferred, by me, to the often strained efforts and curdled tone of Callas.
Caballé’s considerable skills are represented in this collection by examples from two of Bellini’s operas. Regrettably, the casting in these complete recordings is less than perfect (see review) and the influence she exercised over the choice of her husband in the eponymous tenor role in Il Pirata is misplaced but not relevant here (Trs.4-6). Her Elvira in I Puritani is light-toned rather than girlish (Trs.1-3). While significantly superior to Callas in this role she is no match for Netrebko on the live performance from the Met in 2007 and available on DVD (see review).
What perhaps defined Caballé compared to her contemporaries was her capacity to move, on stage or in the recording studio, between verismo, bel canto and dramatic roles within a very short time. The recording of Aida in 1974 followed shortly after her memorable performances of Norma at Orange when the mistral blew her costume, but not her voice, all over the place (Hardy Classics DVD). Her floated high note at the end of O patria mia (Tr.7) is to die for. As to her survey of the long act five aria Tu che le vanita from Verdi’s Don Carlo (Tr.6) it has always underwhelmed me personally, but not others.
The final four arias come from a recital selection (Trs.9-11) set down in 1971. Caballé is in superb voice. The floated opening phrases of Pace, pace, mio dio from the last act of Verdi’s La Forza del destino have rarely sounded better, even from the likes of Leontyne Price. The soaring opening, the following diminuendo and the rich-toned hue to the voice are wonderful to listen to. So too are the final items for the last act of Otello (Trs.11-12). The floated high note in the Ave Maria, and the strings that foretell the arrival of Otello, and Desdemona’s death, are memorable in their effect. They represent Montserrat Caballé at her very best and make a fitting end to this selection that celebrates her eightieth anniversary.
Robert J Farr