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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 10, No. 8

Victoria de los Angeles (Barcelona, Spain, November 1, 1923 – January 15, 2005)

by Joseph So / May 14, 2005

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Hard on the heels of the passing of Renata Tebaldi, the music world lost another giant, the beloved Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles, who died in January. Born Victoria Gomez Cima into a working-class family in Barcelona, de los Angeles sang and played guitar before starting formal study in voice and piano at the Barcelona Conservatory. In 1945, she made her operatic debut as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro at the Liceo, Barcelona’s leading opera house. Her breakthrough came when she won the Geneva International Vocal Competition in 1947. Important debuts followed: Marguerite in Paris and New York, Mimě at Covent Garden, and Ariadne at La Scala. Critics and audiences marvelled at the extraordinary beauty of her sound, and the endearing combination of vulnerability and charm of her stage presence, a quality she maintained to the very end. She had a wide-ranging repertoire of French, German and Italian works, in addition to works of Spanish composers, which she tirelessly championed.

In addition to the Countess, a signature role early in her career, her repertoire included the Wagner heroines Elsa, Eva, and Elizabeth – the last one she sang to great acclaim at Bayreuth – as well as Agathe, Butterfly, Manon, Antonia, Violetta, Desdemona, Mélisande, and Rosina. A celebrated Mimě, her recording alongside Jussi Bjoerling as Rodolfo, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, has never been out of the catalogue and remains a standard by which others are judged. Recorded in 1956 by EMI, it was the crowning achievement of her long association with the British label, where she made many recordings, including 22 complete operas and forty recitals. Of her era, only Callas and Tebaldi have a comparable legacy of recordings. De los Angeles committed to disc a few roles that she either never sang onstage, such as Charlotte in Werther, or in the case of Carmen, only late in her career, when the critics were not so kind. But her recording of the role under Beecham is an estimable achievement and unique in her almost Rosina-like portrayal of Carmen, full of good humour and refinement. There is unfortunately little video legacy of de los Angeles, but the Traviata Act 1 excerpts on the American television program ‘Festival of Music’, available on VAI DVD 4244, is worth seeking out.

A consummate recitalist, de los Angeles liked to program songs in several different languages and spanning approximately three centuries. Her long-time collaboration with the British pianist Gerald Moore has been preserved on many memorable recordings. Her voice, though exquisite, is often called a ‘falcon’, a French expression for a soprano with a short top. With the passage of time, the high notes became more effortful, and by the 1970s, she rarely appeared on the opera stage, preferring to focus on recitals. While I never saw her in her vocal prime, I do recall hearing her in Toronto on two occasions in the 1980s. Her repertoire by then was restricted to songs that did not tax her limited resources, but one could still catch glimpses of her former glory, and her charming stage persona remained as vivid as ever. Particularly memorable was de los Angeles accompanying herself on the guitar, singing a Catalan melody as an encore.

By all accounts, life was not kind to de los Angeles, who had to face many disappointments and tragedies in her personal life. It was rumoured in music circles that her marital break-up was responsible for her continuing to sing late in life. However, the affection of the public for her was so unconditional and total that one would like to believe that she sang as much for the energy and love she derived from her adoring public, than out of economic necessity. She performed well into the late 1990s, stopping only when one of her two sons passed away.

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