greatness … What emanates from Caballe’s throat can best be described as total purity in the sense of majestic power and natural expressiveness.’ Christopher Webber It is no surprise that Caballé’s identification with Spanish music is less marked than that of her contemporaries Alfredo Kraus and Teresa Berganza, both of whom learned their stagecraft in zarzuela. As she had emerged from a tough childhood in Gràcia, perhaps the most proudly Catalan (and least touristy) district of Barcelona, Madrid’s musical establishment at first overlooked her distinctive gifts. She was privately funded at the Liceu conservatoire by a local businessman, José Antonio Bertrand; a highly influential teacher was the great Lieder soprano Conchita Badía, another Catalan outsider; and she built her reputation in Italy, not Spain.
Having said which, her breakthrough role in mid-1950s Florence was Salud in Falla’s La vida breve; yet though the opera remained in her active repertoire, she was never to record it commercially. Once Caballé had succeeded in Europe, the Liceu welcomed her back with open arms, notably in a 1962 Arabella which cemented her warm relationship with home audiences. Two years later she starred with her husband, the Aragonese tenor Bernabé Martí, at the Teatro de la Zarzuela—Madrid’s major operatic stage during the 50-year closure of the Teatro Real—in another La vida breve, initiating a fruitful partnership with the theatre which culminated in a surprising Sieglinde in the 1986 production of Die Walküre.
Franco’s regime was naturally keen to showcase her in zarzuela; and although her stage appearances were pretty much limited to ‘guesting’ in José Tamayo’s glittering international touring zarzuela spectacular, Caballé’s recorded legacy is important to the genre. Complete recordings, dating from her 1970s vocal prime, include Rafael Millán’s melodrama El pájaro azul and two masterworks by Amadeo Vives. Casilda in La villana is a sort of Spanish Desdemona, whose high-lying pianissimos suit her voice superbly; while the spinto role of Rosa, the capricious anti-heroine of the pastoral opera Maruxa, displays her sumptuous sensuality. Both convey a detailed dramatic involvement unusual in her work. Alongside her close friend José Carreras, she also recorded Rafael Martínez Valls’s 1926 Catalan-language ‘sarsuela’ Cançó d’amor i de guerra, a visceral reading which remains unsurpassed on disc.
For vocal connoisseurs, the two albums of zarzuela romanzas Caballé made for RCA (to which we might add various duets performed with Martí, and with their daughter Montserrat) are lasting memorials to her art, offering a consistent beauty across the vocal registers and a depth of character fully equal to her best operatic recordings.
Unique or not? Criticism is a matter of opinion, so the Editor is entitled to damn with faint praise WNO’s magnificent War and Peace (November, pp. 1420-2). However, it is somewhat misleading to
complain about Andrey singing the ‘sloppy cliché’ words of ‘quite unique’ in Rita McAllister’s translation. The use of this phrase is not quite unique, because at the same point in ENO’s 2001 production using Edward
Opera, December 2018