Montserrat Caballé was one of the most stimulating and refined singers in opera, concert and recital in the second half of the 20th century. Born in Barcelona on 23 April 1933, she studied at the Barcelona Liceo and made her concert debut there in 1954. After opera engagements at Basle and Bremen and guest appearances in Milan, Vienna and Lisbon, she became a major international star in 1965 when she substituted for an ailing Marilyn Horne in a concert performance of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia in New York. Her long and highly successful career has encompassed a wide range of repertoire, including roles in a number of demanding bel canto operas in which she followed Maria Callas, who had brought these works back into public favour.
This CD, together with the 5-CD set The Sound of Montserrat Caballé, is being released to mark the diva’s 80th birthday.
The recital opens with the aria ‘Son vergin vezzosa’ sung by Elvira, the daughter of an English Puritan nobleman, to express happiness at her forthcoming marriage to the Cavalier Arturo in Bellini’s I puritani. But her joy gives way to madness when she wrongly believes Arturo has betrayed her, and her extended mad scene that begins ‘O rendetemi la speme’ is one of the high points in the bel canto repertoire. These two items give Caballé the opportunity to demonstrate her exquisitely beautiful voice and also to make use of her outstanding technical ability to sing florid music, as well as bring it to life dramatically when required. Next comes the closing scene from Bellini’s Il pirata, another long scene in which the heroine Imogene is deranged by grief as she watches the man she loves ascending the scaffold to be executed. This is another feast of bel canto singing at its most accomplished.
We then move to Verdi and his unfortunate heroine Aida, torn between her love for the dashing Egyptian soldier Radamès and her beloved homeland Ethiopia as she awaits him in a secret desert assignation: ‘Qui Radamès verrà...O patria mia’. Caballé then gives us a superb account of the poignant scene in Don Carlo where the queen Elisabetta recalls how happy she was in France when she was betrothed to Don Carlo, a Spanish prince, before she was forced for political reasons to marry Don Carlo’s elderly father, King Philip II of Spain
In the next aria, ‘Pace, Pace, mio Dio’ from La forza del destino, Caballé, tackles perhaps the most dramatic of the arias heard here. Leonora, a Spanish noblewoman, believing her lover to have deserted her after he accidentally killed her father, is living as a hermit in a cave in the mountains. She longs for the peace that death will one day bring her, but her solitude is interrupted by the abrupt arrival of a stranger at the entrance to her cave.
Verdi was a great admirer of Shakespeare and the programme ends with extracts from his settings of two of the bard’s plays. These are the eerie Sleepwalking Scene from Macbeth where Lady Macbeth is re-living in her dreams the horrendous murder of King Duncan that she carried out earlier in the play, and the poignant Willow Song and Ave Maria from the final scene of Otello where Caballé’s Desdemona is heartbreakingly moving.