The Catalan soprano Montserrat Caballe was born in Barcelona in 1933 and became one of the most famous sopranos of her age, rivalled in her native land only by Victoria de los Angelos whom we will meet later. Regarded as primarily a bel canto singer (the term used to describe an emphasis on beauty and lyrical style typical of the great eighteenth and early nineteenth century operas, of which she became a notable exponent), she in fact had a much wider repertoire than that, singing many Puccini and Verdi roles as well as performing in three of Richard Strauss’s operas as well as Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Eventually she sang over eighty operatic roles and in her later years after retirement from the operatic stage, she became a notable recitalist. Caballe has established a foundation for needy children in Barcelona and is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. Her fame extended far beyond the classical field when she sang with the rock singer Freddie Mercury the song ‘Barcelona’, which became the anthem of the 1992 Olympics.
She was, says NGMD, ‘an actress of refinement and dignity, but no great dramatic intensity’, which sounds a bit harsh. Regarded as a successor to Maria Callas anyone would pale in the wake of that supreme artist of the soul and the stage. I have been comparing recordings of Puccini’s La Tosca – the famous EMI recording with Callas, Gobbi and di Stefano (now available on a Naxos Historical disc) and the Philips 1976 version of the opera conducted by Colin Davies, Caballe’s Flora partnered by the young Jose Carreras’s Cavaradossi. There is commitment in both diva’s performances and whilst there is nothing of the earthy passion of Callas, Caballe’s more controlled performance (I have been comparing the recordings and especially the two versions of Vissi d’arte) is very beautiful and has an integrity and purity of its own.
She once said that when the feeling of the music was there for her, then the words would automatically ring true. These qualities are no doubt evident in her many recordings, and she is one of Spain’s musical gifts to the world.