Thursday 27 June 2019

Old-school prima donna Montserrat Caballe passes away

ONE OF THE GREATS: Montserrat Caballe with Freddie Mercury
ONE OF THE GREATS: Montserrat Caballe with Freddie Mercury

Rupert Christiansen

She was perhaps the last of her kind - the fat lady who sang like an angel.

The Catalan soprano Montserrat Caballe, who died yesterday aged 85 in Barcelona, was a wayward prima donna of the old school - infuriatingly unreliable, lazy and capricious, although adorably warm, funny and generous too. She was also an artist of musical genius, blessed with a voice of richly vibrant beauty and flexibility, schooled through a long apprenticeship in superb technique and phenomenal breath control, crowned with a magical and matchless capacity to spin exquisitely floating, sustained pianissimi above the stave.

Her repertoire was astonishingly wide - from Spanish renaissance music to Richard Strauss. But she was at her best in 19th Century Italian opera and many of her earlier recordings of Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi and Puccini are ranked as classics.

In performance, she was erratic - a commanding and glamorous presence but often somewhat disengaged and liable to go her own sweet way, independent of her colleagues. During an infamous performance of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera at Covent Garden, she stopped singing halfway through a duet with Pavarotti and walked off stage, returning serenely five minutes later, as though nothing had happened.

Another time she threw oranges into the orchestra pit, possibly as a gesture of her disdain for the conductor.

Such behaviour was typical of a free and eccentric spirit that finally led her to Queen's Freddie Mercury - who idolised her as a camp icon and a superb singer. Their gloriously flamboyant collaboration on the smash-hit Barcelona brought her to a new public, just as her operatic career was drawing to a close.

Serious health issues, mismanagement of her finances and the baleful influence of her brother Carlos made her last years unhappy - she was convicted of tax fraud in 2015 and narrowly escaped imprisonment.

But she should be remembered as one of the truly great singers of her generation.

© Telegraph

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