Victoria de los Ángeles (1923-2005) was a Catalan soprano who had a voice of haunting beauty. Though most of her roles were the mainstays of the Italian soprano repertory, she had a rich middle and lower register that allowed her to sing mezzo roles such as Rosina in Rossini Barber and the title role of Carmen.
She started life in modest circumstances, born in the porters lodge at the University of Barcelona where her father was a caretaker. Her vocal skills were recognized at an early age. She sang Mimì in Puccini’s La Bohème at the Barcelona’s Liceu (Iberia’s most important opera house) when she was only 18. In 1947 she won the Geneva International Music Competition. Within a few years she was a fixture in the world’s leading opera companies. Her Met debut was in 1951 as Marguérite in Gounod’s Faust. Over the ensuing 10 years she gave 139 performances with the company. After 1961 she rarely appeared on the opera stage except for occasional appearances as Carmen concentrating on recitals and recordings. At the Met she sang in Italian, French, and English. Her appearances in Carmen there were as Micaela. I heard her in Faust, Bohème. The Barber, and Otello at the old house. She was enormously impressive in each of these roles.
Besides the unique beauty of her sound was her ability to innately transmit the emotional content of what she was singing; her voice is instantly recognizable after you’ve heard it just once, As Rosina in The Barber she was pert, vivacious, and captured the high spirited nature of Rossini’s heroine. She sang the part as Rossini wrote it, eschewing the canary bird version offered by high sopranos who often sing the part. Though scored for an alto, it is commonly now sung by mezzos, the distinction between the two having been blurred. De los Ángeles negotiated the part with no difficulty, both with respect to the part’s range and coloratura passages. Una voce poco fa is from the first act.
Puccini’s Mimì was at the core of her stage repertoire. She sang the part 23 times during the decade she appeared at the Met. Mi chiamano Mimì is from the first act of Bohème. She is partnered with Jussi Björling in the duet that immediately follows the aria – O soave fanciulla. Though she greatly admired Björling’s singing and recorded three complete operas with the Swedish tenor, de los Ángeles appeared in only four performances with him at the Met, all in Faust at the end of 1953. When I heard as Marguerite it was with the other great Swedish tenor, Nicolai Gedda, in the title role.
Madama Butterfly was also a prominent role for her. She recorded the complete opera two times. The first was with Giuseppe Di Stefano as Pinkerton; the second was with Björling. I think she was in better form in the earlier recording. Choosing between the two legendary tenors is a matter of taste. I prefer Di Stefano’s reading of Pinkerton. The recording was made when the Sicilian tenor was at the peak of his brief prime. Björling’s voice remained in pristine condition, despite his problems with alcohol, until the day he died at age 49. Un bel di is from Act 2. The soprano has the power along with the vocal sheen to bring off this difficult aria with power and undiminished tone.
De los Ángeles appeared as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello with the Met four times (one was on tour in Baltimore) in 1958. All these performances had Mario Del Monaco and Leonard Warren as Otello and Iago, respectively. It is impossible to assemble today a cast of comparable quality. Desdemona’s Willow Song (even if she does mispronounce ‘salce’) and Ave Maria from the final act show the soprano’s art at its best.
Ebben…Ne andro lontana from Catalani’s La Wally was only in her recital repertory; she never sang the role onstage. Her rich voice and melting phrasing sends the pathos of the great tune straight to the listener’s heart. Carmen, as mentioned above was the opera that she returned to after she had mostly given up the stage for the recital hall. The Habanera is from the first act. This excerpt is from the complete recording of the opera that she made in 1958 under Thomas Beecham’s direction. Her seductive approach to the music and the relatively slow tempo give the famous number a distinctive quality.
The singer devoted a lot of her time to Spanish music. Her recitals with the noted pianist Alicia de Larrocha, also a native of Barcelona, were highly esteemed by both audiences and critics. Joaquín Turina (1882-1949) was a noted Spanish composer during the first half of the last century. The following excerpt is from his song cycle. Poema en forma de canciones.
Finally, a selection from the Brazilian composer Heitor Villas-Lobos’ (1887-1959) Bachianas Brazilianas. This is the Dança from the 5th of the nine suites comprising the work.
De los Ángeles was clearly one of the great vocal personalities of the last century. She died at age 81 in the city of birth leaving behind an extensive and rich recorded legacy.
For me, the most existing part of her recitals, great as they were, was when a stool would be brought before the curtain and with her arm cradling her guitar, the applause would reach a crescendo as she sat and began to play and sing the songs of her homeland.