The Catalan soprano who won hearts the world over
On March 17, 1951, the Catalan soprano Victoria de los Angeles made her Met debut in Gounod’s Faust. Sixty years on we revisit a “Reputations” column that John Steane wrote in December 1998, shortly after Victoria de los Angeles had celebrated her 75th birthday.
Victoria de los Angeles won hearts by merit of rich talent and hard work, and she has kept it to this day, but there was (I would say) a period when it was in danger. She went on singing though the voice was obviously deteriorating, and people would say ‘Why does she do it?’. Whatever the answer to that, she persisted, and there came a time when she won through. The sad question gave place to a kind of marvelling. Once past (say) 60, she presented us not with decline but survival. With diminished range and volume, she sang on and on, and the applause redoubled. Her concerts in London became something like what they had been in the golden days, not in sound of course, but in spirit; and the sound itself was still pure and steady. To one of her last Wigmore Hall concerts I took my young nephew, who had not heard her before either in person or on records. After the first group of songs, not knowing quite what he would make of it, I said something mildly apologetic about age and the glories of yesteryear. ‘Oh, but I think she's wonderful!’ he said. ‘I've never heard a voice like that. She's special!’
That was in 1993, her 70th year; and now she is 75 and we all send our love. But let me recall, if words can do it, how she was when first heard here, all those years ago. There are different kinds of lustre to a voice, and hers was not so much a bright shaft of light as an encompassing radiance. I'm not sure that records quite catch this; with their pride in definition, they tend to narrow the sound. My memory is that the first records, the 78s, heard on the gramophone of those times, did answer pretty well to the sound we took away in our heads from the concert hall. The Spanish songs – the Tonadillos of Granados for instance – and the lovely Respighi coupling (E se un giorno tornasse and Stornellatrice) seemed as to the life. But if it is a warm lustre one thinks of first, there was brightness too. A song such as Rodrigo's De los alamos vengo would be taken in a voice that so to speak 'thought high' and glinted. Earlier in the programme there would normally be a group of Lieder, not very adventurously chosen but often beautiful, especially if among them were Der Nussbaum or Die Mainacht. Some Fauré, Duparc or Ravel might follow – and how adorably she sang L'invitation au voyage and Fauré's Chanson d'amour. But certainly the Spanish songs were best. It was in these, too, that the personality became most vivid. Her London concerts in those years were in the Festival Hall, not the kindliest or most intimate of places, yet as the evening drew to its close it felt like a party. Of course, the broad smiles, the lustrous eyes, the black hair and the red rose contributed, but essentially it was a matter of voice and art. When she sang Montsalvatge's lullaby (Canción de cuna para dorrnir a un negrito, and not so well known in those days), the hall was quiet with that special hush that betokens an intense awareness of the moment, a shared sense of perfection, a 'held' loveliness.
Many will have equally cherished memories of her singing in the opera house. I would love to have heard those early Bohèmes at Covent Garden. She was a 26-year-old Mimì, and The Times remarked: ‘It is rare to discover such maturity of tone in one so young.’ Her nervousness was apparent on the first night in the First Act, but ‘it soon became evident that she was a singer of the front rank’. Ernest Newman, in The Sunday Times, greeted ‘a mistress of all the arts of tonal shading, one who has not merely studied singing but is a singer born’. That was in 1950, and, though she herself sang in Italian, the opera was given in English, which cannot have made the debut any easier. It was a triumph, and the recital which followed at the Wigmore was a still greater one. The Bohème of 1960 was, to critics who could make the comparison, not quite so good: I thought it marvellous, and her Act 3 the most touching I had heard,
Her Mimi is of course on record, Beecham conducting and Björling as Rodolfo. It is almost automatically referred to as 'the classic' version; but I prefer my memories. With Madama Butterfly the preference is reversed. Moving as she was on stage in that opera, I always felt that in a house the size of Covent Garden the part needed more power. On record she is fine. The two studio versions (there is also at least one pirated live performance, from New Orleans) make an interesting comparison and in some ways are complementary. The first, under Gavazzeni, has an enchanting freshness, and, with Giuseppe di Stefano as such a natural charmer of a Pinkerton, Act 1 carries all before it. The second, made six years later in 1960, has less of youth and springtime in the First Act but a greater expressiveness thereafter: it is as though she has worked the emotions of the ‘triste madre’ into her heart. Another opera at Covent Garden was Manon, and it was instructive to find how effectively she could adapt the voice, matching the higher tessitura with a brighter, more distinctively French tone. We never saw her in the role which introduced her to audiences at the Metropolitan, and which she also recorded twice: Marguerite in Faust. But New Yorkers enjoyed many treats denied to us, including her Rosina (both Rossini and Mozart), Violetta, Desdemona, Mélisande and Eva in Die Meistersinger. La Scala collected some greater rarities still: she made her debut there as Ariadne (her only Strauss role), returned as Donna Anna, and in 1955 as Agathe in Der Freischütz. In 1961 she sang in the world premiere of Falla's Atlántida in Barcelona and as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser at Bayreuth. A role she would dearly love to have sung is the Marschallin, but, as she says, rather ruefully, nobody asked her.
Even so brief and incomplete a resume makes us realize there is quite a lot of this prolific recording artist that we don't have on record. And of course records do make reputations. As if to compensate for the lacunae we are offered delights such as her Amelia Boccanegra, Suor Angelica and her Charlotte in Werther. There is also the Carmen, the antithesis of Callas's maybe but not in respect of its vividness: it is a performance to which memory can be unfair, its individuality impressing afresh with each return to the discs themselves. Her Dido in Purcell's opera under Barbirolli is back in circulation, as is La vida breve, the opera in which her voice was first heard by British radio listeners 50 years ago.
As the years go by, and the 21st century listens to the 20th, there will be much sifting and reshuffling of reputations. It is likely that Victoria de los Angeles will be placed in time as a singer of the 1950s, with a few years added on at either end. But it may also be that some sifter or shuffler, turning over a pile of old discs, will come upon one called ‘An Evening with Victoria de los Angeles’ and be mildly disorientated to find that the evening in question was that of May 3rd, 1990. As the second half of the programme begins, with a group of Catalan folk-songs, the years fall away, and with the first encore, of Clavelitos, the affection in which this 66-year-old singer is held becomes palpable. If the evidence of other senses is required in addition, a video of celebrations in Barcelona will provide it. The audience is enthusiastic and vociferous, and at one point eloquently silent. This is when she sings, unaccompanied, a prayer (Cancion del alma) of St John of the Cross: the sight, as well as the sound, will tell the future much about the reputation of this artist, honoured in her native city and loved throughout the world.
1923 Born in Barcelona. November 1: All Souls' Day.
1939 Enters Barcelona Conservatory.
1941 Sings Messenger in student performance of Monteverdi's Orfeo.
1944 Gives first professional recital in Barcelona. First recording – two Spanish songs for Spanish HMV.
1945 Operatic debut as Countess in Le nozze di Figaro at the Liceu, Barcelona.
1947 Wins International Prize at Geneva.
1948 BBC broadcast of La vida breve. Marries Enrique Magrina. Makes debut at Paris Opera. USA tour.
1950 Makes debut at La Scala and Covent Garden.
1951 Makes debut at Metropolitan Opera in Faust.
1952 Records Il barbiere di Siviglia under Serafin in Milan for HMV.
1953 Makes first recording of La vida breve, in Barcelona for HMV.
1954 Records Faust with Nicolai Gedda and Boris Christoff in Paris for HMV.
1956 Tours Australia and New Zealand. Records La bohème under Sir Thomas Beecham in New York for HMV.
1958-9 Records Carmen under Beecham in Paris for HMV.
1959 Records Madama Butterfly opposite Jussi Björling in Rome for HMV.
1961 Makes debut at Bayreuth in Tannhäuser.
1965 Records Dido and Aeneas under Sir John Barbirolli in London for HMV.
1967 Takes part in Gerald Moore's farewell concert at London's Royal Festival Hall with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; recorded live by HMV.
1975 Appears at the Aldeburgh Festival.
1978 Sings Carmen on stage for the first time, with New Jersey State Opera.
1979 Tour of Russia.
1980 Gives anniversary recitals at Carnegie and Wigmore halls.
1989 Gives Jubilee recital at Palau de la Musica, Barcelona. Receives Golden Disc Award, having sold more than five million records.
1990 Last solo recording. “An Evening with Victoria de los Angeles", made live by Collins Classics at London's Wigmore Hall on May 3.
1992 Makes final recording for soundtrack of Barcelona Olympic Games.
1993 70th birthday concerts.
1998 Retires from the concert platform.
2004 Receives the Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Gramophone Awards.
2005 Dies in Barcelona, January 15, aged 81.