While preparing this aria for a concert next month, I was reflecting on the idea of freedom. We all, in some way or another, long for freedom—from a person, situation, or even our own thoughts. In “Stridono lassù,” Nedda is desperate to escape her oppressive situation and fly like the birds. To her, birds represent hope. With so many melancholic arias in my repertoire, it’s a breath of fresh air to sing something hopeful (albeit temporarily, since my character dies at the end anyway!). Enjoy this rendition by the divine Montserrat Caballé; I can’t imagine it sung better.
A student and I were talking about the operas we’d heard in recent months, as we often do at the beginning of a session. It was a slightly depressing discussion, and one I’ve had several times recently in my studio during a period when there has been a lot of alarming crash-and-burn singing across the Plaza from Juilliard. I was doing my best not to be dismissive of the current generation of performers, apparently in vain. “Steve,” this young man asked me, “is there anyone singing today who does have some of the qualities you remember from the old days?”
I didn’t want to seem like a curmudgeon or a BOQ (“bitter opera queen”), so I said I’d get back to him. And today I thought of a singer I’ve come to admire a great deal—a woman I have never heard live, but whose recordings and broadcasts have that Golden Age beauty and the kind of vocal discipline I crave.
The Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka has sung some big stuff at the Met—“William Tell,” “Norma.” I’ve been fascinated by her voice ever since I heard her as Donna Anna on a Sirius broadcast of “Don Giovanni” in 2011. Her tuning was precise, almost instrumental. Her color was mysterious—dark and bright at the same time, what the Italians call chiaroscuro. The vibrato: narrow and even, spinning all the time but with an impression of stillness. The timbre: at once lean and plush. “She’s like a female Hvorostovsky,” I thought to myself.
I focused a lot on Rebeka this spring and summer because I was doing some obsessive listening to Verdi’s early opera “Luisa Miller.” I’d heard a performance at the Met that left me somewhat frustrated and unsatisfied (though I freely admit I cried like a baby at the end). I discovered that Rebeka had a new recording of it—thank you, Spotify—and I dove in. Eureka!
I’d grown up with the recording Anna Moffo made in 1965, in which she is often lovely. The role is a bit heavy for her, and as a result her Luisa is all lachrymose fragility, a vulnerable and helpless young woman. She’s like a stick of butter left out in the sun. Marina Rebeka is the opposite: steely and firm, defiant and strong. There are few technical challenges she doesn’t master with awesome resources. There is no little puckery burble when she goes into her upper register (what singers call the “passagio”). While Moffo leans on a little sob to finish her lines, Rebeka ends her phrases with poise, spinning off the last note like an expert gymnast. No grace note, no awkward bit of coloratura fazes her. It’s all there, clean as a whistle.
I began to think that Anna Moffo’s Luisa was built on an older idea of femininity, one that I remember from the 50s and 60s when women were still called “the weaker sex.” Marina Rebeka lacks Moffo’s warmth, and she can sound a little tough in Romantic roles. At the end of “Norma,” which I heard on Sirius, her touching plea that her father bring up her illegitimate children after her death sounded more like, “Dad, you need to take the kids, I’ve got to be away on a business trip, the plane’s in an hour.”
Yes, Marina Rebeka can be brusque. But she’s an expert singer with musical class and a timbre that won’t leave my imagination. She has dignity, fierceness, and stature—a diva for our times. I can’t wait to see her live—though she doesn’t appear to be coming this way this season, alas.
Here’s a link to the whole “Luisa,” but why don’t you start with the final section of the Act III duet with George Petean, who sings a stunningly beautiful performance of Miller:
(2:17:30). They both take the first two phrases of the melody in one breath, which rocks my world.
And if you want to hear more heart-stopping “Luisa” beauty, here’s Caballé live from the Met 1968. An excerpt from the Act III duet with Rodolfo, here sung by Richard Tucker. It still makes me cry, so excuse me while I look for some Kleenex.
The summer before last I became obsessed with the Verdi Requiem. It’s a piece I’ve known since I was 13, when I got the Leontyne-Jussi Bjoerling LPs (in monophonic sound) as a bar mitzvah gift. But now, due to the miracle of Spotify, I suddenly have the capacity to hear a slew of recordings, all available by touching a screen. Young people take this digital bonanza for granted, but after lugging stacks of records home from the library as a kid, I never cease to marvel at how easy it is to indulge my musical whims. I floss while listening to Leonard Warren’s Ballo broadcast from 1947. I pop my lenses out to the sounds of Maria Callas’ Rosina live from La Scala. As Casilda says in The Gondoliers, “It’s too much happiness!” (Pronounced “heppiness.”)
Spotify has a Daily Mix based on the music I’ve listened to, and it seems they have never forgotten my Verdi Requiem summer. It pops up constantly on the playlist they offer me, even though I have by now moved on to other obsessions. But from all my Requiem-listening, one cut did stand out in my mind as the most extraordinary of all: the Agnus Dei movement as sung by Montserrat Caballé and Fiorenza Cossotto (Barbirolli conducting). This section comes about two-thirds of the way through the Requiem, right after a rousing double-fugue chorus. The brass is blaring, 125 people are singing at the top of their lungs-and then, out of the silence, the soprano and the mezzo sing a duet entirely in octaves. They start out unaccompanied and gradually accrue the gentle embrace of chorus and orchestra. It’s magical. And difficult: exposed, a cappella, hushed, hard to keep in tune—and a uniquely beautiful use of two women’s voices.
I do not think either Caballé or Cossotto was an easy colleague, but for the brief duration of this duet they line their voices up like operatic Siamese twins. Cossotto drops her tendency to grandstand, locating a timbre like the most beautiful countertenor you have ever heard. Caballé’s skill at sustaining a floated high tessitura is at the service of immaculate taste and refinement. The two women still hold me spellbound.
There are other Verdi Requiem moments I came to treasure—Ricciarelli’s performance with Abbado is superb, and Marilyn Horne’s with Solti may be her single best piece of singing on record. But Montserrat and Fiorenza—two gifted singers not averse to self-indulgence—sing this music as if in the presence of God himself.
This is the complete performance; the Agnus Dei is at 1:04:45
I’ve been listening to soprano Montserrat Caballé this past week, in the days following her death at age 85. I first heard her at Carnegie Hall in December of 1965, when she sang Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. Later that month my dad and I went to the Met for her début. She wanted to sing in the old house on 39th Street before it got torn down, and they slotted her in for a single performance of Faust. In April the next year, she appeared in the very emotional final concert in that venerable theater, and my dad and I were there too. I have a black-and-white photo of her singing the Rosenkavalier trio with Judith Raskin and Rosalind Elias. Well anyway, the top of their heads. We were in the dress circle on the side. (You can hear it on YouTube, where Judith Raskin appears to be singing Caballé off the stage. I remember she seemed a little pale vocally, though the famous opening line was spendid.)
I always had mixed feelings about Montsi, as she was known. Her sound had a unique sheen, concentrated and steady with a range of colors from an angelic gentleness to a marvelously petulant, authoritative Geschrei. When she was in good voice, she could be sublime. When she wasn’t, the Geschrei could get harsh. She was cavalier about words, especially when she was singing high. Theatrically she was also quite variable, sometimes quite moving, sometimes diva-ish, often quite inert. But she could stop time when it came to spinning out a long legato melody. Her breath control was awe-inspiring, and she could sustain a tune or a cadenza or a big high note longer than you thought possible, and with more beauty.
Here are a couple of great Caballé moments: the Act IV aria from Verdi’s “I vespri siciliani,” which ends with a two-and-a-half octave cadenza from high C to low F#. This is a fearsomely difficult piece and Caballé is transcendent. Floating the melody like an unbearably sad serenade, she bids farewell to life and to her lover.
Here are two versions: the commercial recording and live from the Met.
And for that petulant, belligerent Geschrei, here is the end of “Don Carlo” from the April 1972 broadcast of “Don Carlo.” It was the last matinee of the of Rudolph Bing’s 22-year tenure at Met. She holds the last high B for 15 seconds, a fitting valedictory to a departing Artistic Director. Ladies and gentlemen, THIS is opera.
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