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DAME JOAN SUTHERLAND

7 NOVEMBER 1926 - 10 OCTOBER 2010

 

 

By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 26 OCTOBER 2010 — A little over two weeks ago Joan Sutherland died, yet another of the great singers of my youth to have left us this year. I first heard her in August 1960 when she sang Elvira in Puritani with the Glyndebourne Opera at the Edinburgh Festival, a year after her emergence from obscurity as Donizetti’s Lucia at Covent Garden. As too often in her early years, Sutherland was not entirely surrounded by singers of equal stature (though Ernest Blanc was an exception on this occasion), but it was clear that here was a soprano the likes of which few had experienced. The voice was full, the technique flawless, the trill devastating in its accuracy, and instead of the coloratura sopranos who reigned supreme in a repertory here was a voice that could easily fill the house, only the second of whom that could be said in the years after Maria Callas. Granted she lacked the animal magnetism of Callas, but the voice was far more dependable and would remain so for many years to come.

Sutherland went on to reestablish a number of works to the repertory, particularly of the Italian bel canto school (Donizetti, Rossini, Bellini) but also French 19th century operas (Massenet, Thomas). All of these are represented on CD, almost all worth listening to except for a few very late excursions into the recording studio (Ernani, Anna Bolena, Adriana Lecouvreur, the second Norma). All the recital albums indicate the influence of husband Richard Bonynge in the choice of unusual items or resuscitations, and even before he became her sole conductor his influence in ornamentation and style. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Sutherland had the good fortune to work with conductors other than her husband, and one of my fondest memories is a Donna Anna at the Met (1967) led by Karl Böhm with the unforgettable Cesare Siepi as Don Giovanni, Pilar Lorengar as Elvira and Alfredo Kraus as Ottavio. The droopiness that occasionally took over in Bonynge-led performances was absent, and there was a crispness that recalled the singer’s earlier days.

In her early pre-fame period, Sutherland’s repertoire was all-encompassing, from Verdi to Tippett to Poulenc, and including Wagner (Meistersinger). But it is her contribution to the bel canto revival for which she will be remembered, while those who heard her at the Met or with the lamented American Opera Society can recall some spectacular evenings (Puritani with Gedda, Beatrice de Tenda with the explosion onto the international scene of Marilyn Horne –at Carnegie Hall, not Town Hall as several articles have recently stated – who also participated in Semiramide).

There is little of the soprano on DVD but her CDs are an important legacy, most of which have been reissued in varying formats over the years, but almost all worth sampling (stay away from the treacly songs). Noteworthy are the early Art of the Prima Donna and Command Performance, but one should not overlook Massenet’s Esclarmonde or Norma (first recording), Puritani (both recordings) or Beatrice di Tenda. Les Huguénots is marred by a sub-standard tenor, the early Lucia and Traviata similarly disfigured but both worth listening to for the marvel that was Sutherland.

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor at Culturekiosque. He has been opera critic for Opera (U.K.) and Opera News (U.S.A) for thirty years and was elected to the International Music Critics Association (UNESCO) in 1996. Long before the existence of "blogs", Mr. Kasow kept an Opera Diary for Culturekiosque. Opera fans can access the archive of his intensely personal, ongoing commentary on the opera world here.   

For collectors of opera and vocal recordings, please click here to access Operanet's archive of CD and DVD reviews.



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