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■  Caballé’s first and final staged operas at the Liceu: (l.) as Arabella in 1962; (r.) as Catherine d’Aragon in Saint-Saëns’s ‘Henry VIII’ in 2002

obituary, headlined ‘Montserrat Caballé, Opera Star With “Ethereal” Voice, Is Dead at 85’): ‘Over nearly half a century, critics invoked adjectives to describe Ms Caballé’s sound that would read as staggering hyperbole for almost anyone else: “limpid,” “liquid,” “shimmering,” “quicksilver,” “celestial,” “unearthly,” “velvety,” “voluptuous,” “lustrous,” “ravishing.”’

In that period of first exposure to the ‘star’ Caballé, what began to be proclaimed was the revelation of a superlatively well-equipped new vocal artist—one of extended compass (though the top could turn fierce and the bottom glottally clangy), deliciously light-footed agility, superior reserves of stamina, and above all an apparently infinite capacity to spin out long legato lines in the most rapt pianissimo. This last seemed perhaps her prime virtue. (In the 1975 London Trovatore revival that brought about her second Covent Garden appearance, the dying Leonora’s twofold utterance of the phrase ‘Prima che d’altri vivere/io volli tua morir!’, its first half a slow scalic ascent above the stave, became for me another such moment of purest Caballé magic.)

A criticism later more frequently made was that this very mastery encouraged her penchant for tempos excessively slow to the point of stylistic incoherence. She could be strangely careless in executing passages of trills or intricate ornamental embroidery— for example, in ‘Di tale amor’much earlier in the same London Trovatore performance— in the way Callas or Sutherland seldom were. Another recurring criticism pointed to her sometimes unfocused word delivery: in the February 1971 opera, for instance, reviewing—for the most part highly favourably—the Donizetti rarities LP, Harold Rosenthal put the point bluntly: ‘For Caballé the voice comes first, the words second.’

In several of the anglophone obituaries she has been characterized, in sum, as a ‘throwback’ diva—or, as the New York Times put it, ‘the last of the old-time prima

Opera, December 2018


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