Rare Gems: A Dramatic Soprano Meet ‘n Greet

Underrated. Forgotten. Neglected. Unknown.

Spanish Soprano Angeles Gulin

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):

ThisO Don Fatale,” from Don Carlos (Verdi) is an unexpected treat, outside her fach, but VERY satisfying!

And, finally, Brünnhilde’sHo-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:

Allein! Weh ganz allein,” the Monologue from Elektra (Strauss)

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?

11 comments so far

  1. Squillo on

    Mille grazie, JCM, for this–especially the Valkki “O don fatale”!

    Just what I needed after a crappy day.

  2. jumping clapping man on

    So glad you enjoyed that…it is the most unexpected of the offerings in this post, AND an amazing performance on its own, at that.

  3. Connie "Chesty" Del Mondo on

    Thanks for the treats. And if I may be permitted… I have shared the stage with one of these gals! Yes, boys, I supered in the 1969 SF Aida when La Molnar-Talajic made her US debut.

    As mentioned by the jcman she followed Gwyneth Jones’ prima performances(but Jon Vickers followed Guy Chauvet & Margarita Lilova stayed on in the run so it could hardly be called a “B” cast) – and all the chorus and backstagers loved the Ljiljana performances.. She was a strong Verdian and they had always felt that La Jones was wrongly parted (as was her wig…)

    Speaking of which, Ljiljana wore an Afro in the title role and looked very 1970s Price-y.

    Then we all bus-&-trucked that Aida to Sacramento – & I ended up with a fierce skin reaction to the body paint that turned us into Egyptians. What fun to be reminded of those heady days! Thanks again.

  4. jumping clapping man on

    Thank you Connie for sharing ye ole SFO tales! You were the lucky ones…with your pick of Golden Age divas back in the day. (I thought perhaps you would have rubbed elbows with Baldani too.)

  5. Ching on

    That’s good stuff. I love how you can hear the prompter on the Välkki clip! Doesn’t bother me at all, makes you feel like you were actually there! And why were you looking up Schwanewilms?

  6. jumping clapping man on

    You should also listen to this Välkki clip:

    The prompter is even MORE loud here. It’s quite amusing…it’s as if he’s part of the performance!

    I touted Schwanewilms in an earlier post I did on jcm…you should click on that link to get to it. (What did you mean by “looking up”?)

  7. JOHN Ritter on

    I knew and was a great personal friend of Angeles Gulin…I have an extensive
    collection of her pirated recordings..many I did myself…If you would like to
    hear some interesting stories, let me know…
    Good work, bringing all those wonderful ladies back to life….
    Today big and “important” voices are frowned upon….too bad…I am so tired
    of Miss Fleming and her colleagues…
    John Ritter

  8. jumping clapping man on

    Fascinating. Thanks John!

    I am always open to operatic lore! (Are you a Bay Area resident?)


  9. Barbara Wollman on

    What a splendid site. I will certainly try Gulin again, but right now I’ve been listening to her Beatrice di Tenda, on the Carreras box ($13.24 for 14 discs, seven operas!) and I don’t enjoy listening to all that swooping. In addition, her diction is terrible, especially compared to the others in this performance, Bruson, Carreras and Zilio.
    Could I add a name? Sarah Walker, mezzo. Her Schubert lieder (Hyperion) are superb, as is her Dejaniera (Handel, Hercules) and her Elizabeth (DVD, Britten, Gloriana — great acting, too). There’s also a fantastic Ho-jo-to-jo on a Chandos Ring.

  10. Barbara Wollman on

    Whoa, just listened to the Tabarro excerpt on YouTube and it sure doesn’t sound like the Florence Foster Jenkins imitator on the Beatrice di Tenda! Thank you for the correction. (Is it possible she was one of those singers who just don’t record well on indifferent equipment?)

  11. Malcolm Levy on

    To-day I just discovered the most beautiful soprano vocies that I have ever heared sing opera and that was the voice of Angeles Gulin,and on youtube I saw and heared her sing La Giocondo on a 1978 video and I was totally amazed at her superlative voice. She was up their with Tebalde.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: