Sunday, October 17, 2010
DAME JOAN SUTHERLAND, 1926-2010: IN MEMORIAM
Dame Joan Sutherland died on October 10, just a week ago, bringing to a close one of the most spectacular operatic careers of the 20th century. There is no doubt that she was one of the greatest sopranos of the twentieth century, and probably of all time, with a voice and a technique that set her apart from the beginning, and made everyone take notice that true greatness had dawned in the world of grand opera. Her contribution to the renaissance of bel canto, from the late 1950's to the 1980's, simply cannot be over-estimated.
Dame Joan was born in Sydney, in 1926. She began studying voice at 18, and made her concert debut in Sydney in 1947. The talent was obvious from the beginning, and after winning an important competition she went to London to study at the Royal College of Music, and was engaged shortly thereafter by Covent Garden to sing small parts.
She made her debut in a leading role in 1952, when she sang Amelia in The Masked Ball. The power of her voice must have been apparent to all, even at that stage in her career, for her to have landed a debut role like Amelia! Curiously, perhaps because of the size of her voice, she was at first interested in Wagner, and greatly admired Kirsten Flagstad. Big roles followed Masked Ball, along with much lighter roles such as Gilda and Pamina. Dame Joan was fortunate to have come along at a time when specialization was not what it is today, and young singers—assuming the ability was there--had an opportunity to vary their repertoire considerably.
Sutherland married Australian conductor and pianist Richard Bonyage in 1954, and it was largely he who convinced her to concentrate on the bel canto roles that would bring her great fame. She had, from the outset, a spectacular technique that made it possible for her to sing very high notes. Eb above high C was never a problem for her, and she could on occasion sing even higher. Coupled with this extreme range was a great flexibility and a flawless trill. These characteristically coloratura attributes, joined to a naturally powerful voice, made her one of the most exceptionally endowed sopranos of all time. In 1959, she sang Lucia at the Royal Opera House in a production conducted by Tullio Serafin and staged by Franco Zeffirelli. The rest, as they say, is history. 1960 and 1961 were important years for Sutherland, as she made debuts in Paris, New York and Milan at that time. From then on, her fame was universal and her extraordinary career established. Lucia had already become something of a signature role for her, and it attracted attention everywhere.
There is no reason to belabor a biography so readily consulted and so well known. Let us, rather, look at the art of this extraordinary woman. The following video is from her first telecast, either 1959 or 60, some 50 years ago. It appears to be a kinescope recording, and the video quality is poor. There is also an annoying time counter plastered across her face part of the time, and the video slips momentarily at the end, causing an audio growl, but, mercifully, the audio quality in general is good, and it is a rare opportunity to see the great lady at the time she burst forth onto the operatic scene world-wide:
Isn't that astonishing! Those rapid cadenzas have every single note articulated accurately and clearly! No glide here! The trill is perfect and the Eb at the end has the same quality as the rest of the voice. There is generally a purity and consistency to the voice, which is like a column of sound, solid from top to bottom, a characteristic most commonly found in Germanic singers, Wagnerians in particular. The more characteristic ebb and flow of the Latin singing style is replaced here by something else, which still works perfectly well in the bel canto repertoire, perhaps contrary to expectation. It is, I would venture, an instance of the total triumph of traditional technique that makes this possible. Vocally speaking, it simply does not get any better than this.
While Lucia, because of the opportunity it affords to display this superb technique, was perhaps Dame Joan's signature role, it certainly was not her only big part. She in fact sang a fairly wide range of roles, albeit largely within the bel canto repertoire. I personally think it was a brilliant move on Bonyage's part to urge her into what was at that time a neglected area, simply because it gave her the chance to foreground her astonishing voice and technique, and also because it helped re-establish the bel canto repertoire, a great repository of beautiful music.
Here is a live recording of Sempre Libera from 1965. It is amazing. There is some background noise and what sounds like a prompter, but it is very light and easy to ignore. She comes through loud and clear, to say the least!
Again, we notice the extreme consistency. Another Eb, seemingly effortlessly produced, carrying a prodigious amount of weight for a note so high! This was one of the many astonishing things about Sutherland's voice—the absolute consistency of the upper register, which actually seems, tonally, of a piece with every other register. I know of no other soprano where this is so obviously the case. Simply amazing!
I suppose that now is as good a time as any to mention the one "flaw" in Sutherland's production that was most commonly mentioned, and that is what some critics called a "mushy" pronunciation that sometimes made it unclear exactly what language she was singing in. Call it "operatic scat," but whatever the reason, it was pretty obvious. I can only say that for me it made no difference. The works in which she shone were well over 100 years old, and the libretti are hardly unknown! Does it really matter? Let us be honest—by the time of the mid-twentieth century the plots and stories are so well known that most listen now only to the music and essential vocalism. This was not the case back in the teens and twenties, when singers such as Battistini or Chaliapin could augment their vocal prowess with their acting ability—in which attention to words was crucial. We are in a different world now.
Finally, here is another role in which the great soprano was brilliant—Elvira in I Puritani. Here is the charming "Son Vergin Vezzosa." (Do notice, please, the trill at 23-25, near the beginning of the piece.)
Absolutely brilliant, is it not? Did you notice the trill very near the beginning of the aria? Possibly the greatest trill ever recorded. I can only think of one other soprano who can compete with this rendition, and that would be the divine Galli-Curci, who brought perhaps more girlish charm and ease of execution to the aria, but much less voice (which was, to be fair, the lot of every coloratura soprano who was not Joan Sutherland!)
There is no need to go on. I know I am running to superlatives, but how is it possible to discuss this goddess among sopranos and not do so? Rest in well deserved peace, Dame Joan. We shall not soon see your equal!
at 10:18 AM