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Montserrat Caballé

Oh, the purity of Montserrat Caballé's vocal line! It can be found, miraculously, in even her oldest recordings, such as her splendid 1967 Traviata, recorded at Rome under the personal direction of Georges Prêtre. La Caballé was thirty-two when she set down this legendary version alongside one radiant Carlo Bergonzi and Sherill Milnes, who was just starting out. The softness of her timbre, her incarnation of the role, her sublime flights (the Addio del passato [CD 2 Track 11, if you are playing it from Qobuz] without the habitual cuts is exquisite). With the young Caballé, emotion comes from the breath and the simplicity of the line taken from the bel canto tradition. But her long career contains plenty of other surprises.  

Born into a very modest and pious family in Barcelona (her Christian name comes from the famous Black Madonna of Montserrat, patron of Catalonia), she was quickly noticed within the town's Conservatoire, where her precocious talent stunned and delighted. It was in Basel, where she spent two long seasons as an understudy while waiting for her moment, that she took her chance one day, standing in for a colleague who had dropped out.  And the rest, as they say, is history. La Caballé had success after success and played a huge range of roles. In 1965 her Lucrezia Borgia by Donizetti set New York's Carnegie Hall ablaze, when she suddenly replaced the great Marilyn Horne. Thanks to her attention to detail and her exceptional vocal technique, Montserrat Caballé sang on all the great stages of the world, playing princesses and queens with an unfailing success. Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Spontini, Verdi, Puccini, but also Mozart, Gounod and Massenet are her favourite composers, loved by the whole world. At the end of her career, she even broke into the Wagner repertoire.

When the fashion swung towards svelte singers, disincarnate and the same age as the characters they played, her imposing physique could have seen her relegated from the stage; but her vocal presence was more imposing still. Her discographic career is immense and covers her whole repertoire. Her voice began to transform in the early 1980s: Montserrat Caballé put the emphasis on the dramatic and theatrical side of her performances, and diversified her repertoire, no longer hesitating to throw herself into crossovers, in particular with Freddie Mercury. She also had a lot of fun on stage, playing a hilarious Madama Cortese, in Rossini's Journey to Reims, under the direction of Claudio Abbado, at the Festival de Pesaro, a performance which remains famous to this day.

Despite poor health that plagued her from childhood, and persistent stage fright which led her to cancel several billings, Montserrat Caballé nonetheless led one of the 20th Century's finest careers. She can be found, intact, in this record with little miracles like the recording of Turandot under the direction of Zubin Mehta, where she plays an extremely fragile and moving Liù.  Norma, to be sure, but also this Giovanna d'Arco, a little-known work by Verdi under the electric direction of James Levine. Her title "Queen of bel canto" has yet to be usurped.

© FH / Qobuz


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