If ever there was an over-used, even lazy, accolade applied to a great singer, “The voice of an angel” is surely it.
What makes this attempt at the highest possible praise even more meaningless is that I’d be surprised, although obviously very excited, if there is anyone who has the authority to make such an assertion.
The legendary conductor, Arturo Toscanini (1876-1957), was so widely lauded in his craft that he may have felt he’d acquired God-like status: so when he used the term about the Italian soprano, Renata Tebaldi (1922-2004), most would have sat up and assumed he knew what he was talking about. She had one of the most beautiful voices of the twentieth century – and, perhaps unusually during her prime, she was no slouch when it came to acting.
Such a combination meant that the press were quick to make comparisons between her and Maria Callas, with whom she is supposed to have had a life-long rivalry. There was something in that, no doubt, but I suspect that if both were alive today, they would say that this was a myth which suited both of them nicely, thank you. Competition between two parties in any field rarely does either side much harm.
Tempting as it may be, it is shallow to state “I’m in the Callas camp” or “Tebaldi for me” – their voices, although in the same range, were very different. I posted on the dramatic, sometimes imperfect, voice of Callas last year in one of her most defining roles, Tosca, so now it is time to indulge in the voice of Tebaldi.
What’s the first thing that enters your head at the mention of the name Bellini?
I won’t believe you if it wasn’t ‘Cocktail’.
Maybe art-lovers will recall the fifteenth century painter, whose “Mother and Child” is still my favourite picture in London’s National Gallery.
But Vincenzo Bellini (1801-35) would be the right answer here, a Sicilian composer whose short life left an operatic output which is right at the heart of the repertoire today. Whether your part in one of his operas was a gooddie or a baddie, you were always assured of the best possible tunes: he just wasn’t all that interested in characterization, the music was everything.
Here is a prime example. Today’s choice comes from ‘Norma‘. It is an opera with all the necessary, and slightly unbelievable, ingredients, which make up a good tragic drama. Two women, both Druid priestesses in Gaul, and therefore bound by an oath of chastity; and yet both in love, initially unknown to the other, with the same man – who just happens to be a Vice Consul in the Roman army, with whom war may be imminent.
One of them, Norma, the High Priestess, even has two sons with the Roman, whose abbreviation of his rank now strikes me as being wholly in keeping with what is to come. It does not end well.
Before that, Norma pleads with the gods to avoid war and the inevitable consequences which a liaison with the enemy would bring. ‘Casta Diva‘ is her prayer, a truly gorgeous melody which will be familiar to many, but perhaps not in this version.
I’ve no idea if this is the “voice of an angel” or not. But if it’s the first thing I hear after closing my eyes for the last time, I shall feel mildly encouraged. Click on the image below and judge for yourself.