Victoria de los Angeles

Soprano with a rich but limpid-toned voice and great interpretive gifts

Monday 17 January 2005 01:00

It is impossible to imagine a more purely beautiful voice than that of Victoria de los Angeles at the height of her career in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Victoria de los Angeles, opera and concert singer: born Barcelona, Spain 1 November 1923; married 1948 Enrique Magriñá (deceased; two sons); died Barcelona 15 January 2005.

It is impossible to imagine a more purely beautiful voice than that of Victoria de los Angeles at the height of her career in the 1950s and early 1960s.

First heard in Britain on BBC radio in 1948, when she sang Salud in Falla's opera La vida breve, the Spanish soprano soon became a tremendous favourite in this country, both at Covent Garden and on the recital platform. As well as her rich but also limpid-toned voice, she had the most delightful personality allied to an attractive and expressive face.

Her finest operatic roles were those like Marguerite or Manon, Mimi or Butterfly, with which she could partly identify and wholly sympathise, but she sang many others, including the Wagner heroines Elisabeth, Elsa and Eva, with equal radiance. As a recitalist, whether in German, French or Spanish works, she had even greater musical and interpretative gifts to offer and continued to appear on the concert platform for many years after she had virtually retired from the opera house.

Victoria de los Angeles was born in Barcelona in 1923. From the age of five or six, she sang and played the guitar for her own pleasure and amusement, but had to overcome a certain amount of parental resistance before she was allowed to study at the Barcelona Conservatory. Completing a six-year course in three years, the soprano won every prize available to her. She gave her first public recital at Barcelona in 1944 and, having sung in Monteverdi's Orfeo while still a student, made her official operatic début at the Gran Teatro del Liceo in January 1945 as Countess Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro.

Later that year she also sang in Lisbon, taking part in a double bill of Pergolesi's Serva padrona and Wolf-Ferrari's Segreto di Susanna. In her second season at the Liceo she took on four of the roles which would figure among her most successful: Massenet's Manon, Marguerite in Faust, Mimi in La Bohème and Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. The following year, she won first prize at the Geneva International Festival; added Elsa in Lohengrin and Agathe in Der Freischütz to her fast-growing repertory; and sang Mimi (with Beniamino Gigli as Rodolfo) in Madrid.

The invitation to sing Salud for the BBC came as a result of her success in the Geneva competition, which led to other offers as well. Victoria de los Angeles became as much in demand abroad as in Spain. In 1949 she toured Scandinavia, giving concerts in Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen. She sang Marguerite to great acclaim at the Paris Opéra and then made an extensive tour of South America. Back in Barcelona she sang Eva in Die Meistersinger for the first time, then set off on a concert tour of Italy.

She made her Covent Garden début early in 1950 as Mimi, then appeared at the Wigmore Hall in the first of countless London recitals given over the next four decades. After singing the title role of Ariadne auf Naxos at La Scala, she gave her first New York recital on 15 October at Carnegie Hall, before returning to Covent Garden to sing Mimi, Manon and Elsa. In January 1951 she was back at La Scala in a new role, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, which was conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

In less than five years, at the age of only 28, Victoria de los Angeles had become a singer of international renown. This remarkable achievement was crowned by her Metropolitan début on 17 March 1951, when she sang Marguerite before an ecstatic audience. For 10 years de los Angeles returned every season to the Metropolitan. She sang all her most successful roles there, including Butterfly, which became possibly her finest interpretation of all, as well as Debussy's Mélisande, Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Violetta in La traviata, Desdemona in Verdi's Otello, Micaela in Carmen, the title role of Martha and her Wagnerian repertory of Elsa, Elisabeth and Eva.

Meanwhile, in 1956 she sang Laodice in Scarlatti's Mitridate Eupatore at the Piccola Scala and also toured Australia and New Zealand, giving 47 concerts. The following year she sang Mimi at the Vienna State Opera, scoring her usual spectacular triumph. She appeared at the 1958 Edinburgh Festival as Salud in La vida breve.

At a gala performance at Covent Garden on 8 June 1961, she sang both Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana and Nedda in Pagliacci. Santuzza was temperamentally unsuited to her, though she sang the music extremely well, but her Nedda, opposite the Canio of Jon Vickers, was perfect, apart from a sense of strain apparent at the top of the voice. That summer (and the next) she appeared at Bayreuth as Elisabeth. In 1962 she sang Desdemona, followed by Donna Anna and Mimi, at San Francisco. She had already left the Metropolitan.

From 1963, de los Angeles severely curtailed her operatic appearances, while continuing to sing in concert and recital all over the world. Perhaps she had sung too much too soon; perhaps she was, as some critics insisted, really a high mezzo and not a soprano. Whatever the cause or reason, she had lost those top notes which a few years before had rung out so gloriously.

The middle of the voice remained strong and secure for another 20 years; and she did acquire one more, extremely successful role - Carmen. In the famous recording of Bizet's opera conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, first issued in 1960, de los Angeles is marvellous as the protagonist, although her voice sounds lighter than that of a conventional Carmen. By the time she started singing the part on stage, she had gained a new vocal warmth and weight in the middle register, without the loss of that quicksilver, teasing quality which is such a feature of her interpretation.

In the early years of her career, Victoria de los Angeles made many fine recordings that recall her beautiful voice and superb artistry at their best: La Bohème, also conducted by Beecham, shares first prize with Carmen, but Madama Butterfly, Manon, Pagliacci and Pelléas et Mélisande are all excellent, while Puccini's Suor Angelica is quite gorgeous.

Her numerous recordings of Lieder, and of French and Spanish songs, evoke many magical memories of her recitals, which often ended with the soprano seated at the front of the platform as she sang some Spanish or Catalan folksong as an encore, accompanying herself on the guitar.

Elizabeth Forbes

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