Rare Gems: A Dramatic Soprano Meet ‘n Greet
Underrated. Forgotten. Neglected. Unknown.
Call them what you will. Re-discovering such divas has always been the pride of Opera Queens the world round, just like hipster punks staking their claim on discovering the coolest, unknown bands. But, back in the day it took the divining powers to wade through the sea of “pirates”! Today, we all know a quick click on youtube takes us places that it would require months of recording research to get to in the past.
So, I’m pleased to share a series of some notable, and some great “would be stars today” divas, suffering from varying degrees of neglect in posterity. No, I’m not talking about Gencer, Cerquetti, Souliotis, or Deutekom…they’re too easy, and hardly forgotten any longer. I’m focusing on dramatic and spinto sopranos (plus a bonus mezzo and baritone), billed by me as Divas With Cojones! Since they are among the rarest operatic fachs these days, and offer the most visceral thrill, they also deserve our greatest honor and sentiment. I hope these discoveries provide you the same pleasure they do me.
Why aren’t they household names?
They were either of a more eccentric type, dimmed by health problems, from smaller countries that offered less intl. exposure, or denied recording contracts of perhaps more “refined” singers. All this contributed to their lack of attention or fame, but conversely they now offer more unique pleasures. I just started to scratch the surface when I touted lesser known contemporary divas Anne Schwanewilms and Paula Almerares.
So, I now introduce (or, perhaps reintroduce) you to these fine Wagnerians, Verdians, and Mozarteans:
Anita Välkki (b. Sääksmäki, 1926)
This Finnish hochdramatische’s (heroic-dramatic) tone and tireless technique bears a resemblance to another more famous Scandinavian, although it’s even more dark and pleasing to my ears. Judging by these samples, it appears that perhaps only a lack of a leading role in the Solti Decca Ring (ie: Third Norn, instead of Brünnhilde), or the rumored onset of a short top (evidenced by later mezzo roles) kept her from becoming the household name that Nilsson did. What a crime. Amazingly, she began her career as an actress, and in operetta.
Enjoy her and the outrageously loud prompter in this “In Questa Reggia,” from Turandot (Puccini):
This “O Don Fatale,” from Don Carlos (Verdi) is an unexpected treat, outside her fach, but VERY satisfying!
And, finally, Brünnhilde’s “Ho-jo-to-ho!,” from Die Walküre. This also offers some great video clips of her offstage, and of NYC.
Gertrude Grob-Prandl (b. Vienna, 1917 – 1995)
Although this Kammersängerin is considered one of the greats by true aficionados, I only discovered her a few years ago, after decades of music listening, and she certainly remains further under the radar than a slew of other Wagnerians: Flagstad, Nilsson, Varnay, Traubel, Mödl, etc. She never appeared at Bayreuth, and in North America, only at the San Francisco Opera (’53).
As with Välkki, she is the quintessential Wagnerian soprano, leaving you wanting nothing, at least as far as her audio recordings are concerned. She is a force of nature. Her fast vibrato is spun of the finest silver.
Enjoy yet another “Ho-jo-to-jo!” from Gertie:
Angeles Gulin (b. Spain, 1939 – 2002)
This Spanish soprano was a true Verdian spinto. Few recordings exist of this sensational artist, “whose enormous, dark voice was said to have set the crystal chandeliers rattling at La Fenice,” in Venice. Several fans on Opera-L recollect that she had the loudest/biggest voice they ever heard live, and one amusingly shares that “when she headed for the top register…DUCK.”
She recorded multiple studio Zarzuela albums, but is mostly only present on “pirates,” in any opera rep. Apparently, she made her late Met debut in ’82, singing only one performance in “I Vespri Siciliani,” and then disappearing. Sadly, she was also afflicted with chronic health problems (liver disease, requiring hemodialisis) that cut her career short, and ended her life all too soon. Her daughter, soprano Angeles Blancas performs today, and shares at least one role to date with her: Abigaille.
“Tutto e perdutto” (Final Scena), from Oberto (Verdi)
And, yet another thrilling “In Questa Reggia.”
Catarina Mancini (b. Genzano di Roma, 1924)
She was an italian dramatic coloratura. Her colorful voice has the thrust and sultry tones of Farrell, and the bronzed high notes and runs of Cerquetti. She was thought to be a lioness who sang with abandon and had some tuning issues, but still maintained a real command of the vocal line.
“Health problems in the early 1960s led her to withdraw little by little from the stage” (Wikipedia). In this sample, her top is not easy, but is thrilling.
“Surta è la notte…Ernani involami,” from Ernani (Verdi)
Ljiljana Molnar Talajić (b. Zagreb, 1938 – 2007)
This Croatian soprano offers a fascinating paradox of a girlish, feminine, and yet voluminous, at times edgy tone. This produces a quality that keeps me listening, not to mention her interpretation. Her fff delivery is balls-out! She was often the “B” cast, or replacement (ie: for Leontyne and Dame Gwyneth).
In his book chronicling the SF Opera, Arthur Bloomfield notes: “(She) was more like the sonic equivalent of a calm moonlit sea on a cold northern night. The transparency and ‘weightlessness’ of her bright-timbred tone reminded a bit of Milanov.” In their Caballé biography, authors Pullen and Taylor wrote that her “principal achievement was to make Montserrat seem both tall and slim.”
“Pace, pace mio dio!,” from La Forza del Destino (Verdi):
“Vissi d’arte,” from Tosca (Puccini)
Radmila Bakočević (b. Guča, Lučani, Yugoslavia, 1933)
This Serbian spinto sang nearly everywhere in the 70s: The Met, La Scala, San Francisco Opera, but focused her career on Europe. She bears some minor Slavic resemblances (ie: taut tone, and a tendency towards sharp pitch) to her countrywoman Zinka.
Arthur Bloomfield described her as “a slim Yugoslavian soprano to whom looking noble came easily…she clutched (her) tenor as if she meant it. Her voice turned out to be a finespun spinto.” She has some audible pitch issues in this sample.
“Ecco l’orido…Ma dell’ arido,” from Un Ballo in Maschera (Verdi)
Maria Casula (b. Italy)
Apparently, this soprano made some poor repertoire choices, and therefore cut her career short. However, this recording of “Non più di fiori,” from the Decca La Clemenza di Tito (1967), conducted by Kertész, catches her in her exciting prime. Her Vitellia is considered by some to be the finest recorded. She is very strong throughout the demanding range, from the lowest note to the high D in the terzetto. It is not the sort of cleaner voice recordings present these days, but it is far more interesting, and characterful.
Sadly, only 5 years later she was singing Marcellina in a recording of Le Nozze.
Bonus Mezzo & Baritone
Ruža Pospiš-Baldani (b. Varaždinske Toplice, 1942)
This Croatian dramatic mezzo was for many years a permanent guest at the Bavarian State Opera. She has a very stylish and controlled technique. Here’s her dramatic interpretation of Ulrica’s “Re dell’abisso, affrettati,” from Un Ballo in Maschera (Verdi):
Nicolae Herlea (b. Bucharest, 1927)
This Romanian baritone, considered by many to be the greatest baritone that ever lived, is still not well-known, certainly in the mainstream. He provides some of the most noble and satisfying tone I’ve ever heard from an operatic baritone, launching him to the top of my Divo Totem (which I haven’t yet made)! This is addictive and sexy singing at its best.
“Il Balen del Suo Sorriso,” from Il Trovatore (Verdi)
“O, Carlo, ascolta…lo morro,” from Don Carlos (Verdi)
You have any favorite little or less known big-voiced divas/divos that you’d like to tout?