Vale Dame Joan Sutherland, OM, AC, DBE

In Generalby John2 Comments

The Australian soprano Joan Sutherland reads through a musical score with her husband, Richard Bonynge in 1960.  Photo by Frank Martin from today’s issue of The Times (London).

This morning after I got up, I walked past the dining room sideboard as usual, to open the dining room curtains.  But this morning a stack of CDs on the sideboard caught my eye, because the top CD was out of position.  So I picked up the album, looked at it affectionately, and replaced it on the stack.  It was “The Art of Joan Sutherland” – an album of 6 CDs featuring many of her great performances.  Next I went into the kitchen, opened the blind, tore off yesterday’s page on my Learn Italian desk diary, and looked at today’s page.   But instead of a new Italian word, it was a short biography of Luciano Pavarotti who was born in Modena on this day in 1935.  It explained that he began his professional career in Italy in 1961 and within a few years – and thanks to the support of the soprano Joan Sutherland – became well known in Europe, Australia and the United States.

So with this as my start for the day, I was deeply shocked when I booted up my computer, read my emails, and then opened my browser to my Excite page and discovered that Dame had passed away on Sunday at age 83.

The Times had several articles about Dame Joan, and the main article about her life started with a gallery of 6 photos from which I chose the one above.  The big print photo caption was:

Australian soprano who was a sensation as Lucia di Lammermoor and whose dramatic coloratura voice became the toast of the world.

The Times article then went on to say, at the start of what was a 5 page article:

On a raw mid-February night in 1959 one of the most remarkable performances in the postwar history of opera took place in London — a night that transformed the career of Joan Sutherland, a 32-year-old soprano from Sydney.

The occasion was the premiere of Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden. The opera had not been heard there since 1925, although in recent years Maria Callas had been restoring the reputation of Donizetti and bel canto in general.

The production was mounted especially for Sutherland, who had previously performed a wide repertoire as a company member for six and a half years. The soprano’s skill in the florid style had been carefully brought out by the coaching of her husband, Richard Bonynge.

Zeffirelli had also worked meticulously to help her to build a convincing physical characterisation (in the unforgettable Mad Scene, he had her darting frantically from one guest to another, which she accomplished while continuing to maintain perfect vocal control).

The performance launched Sutherland’s reign as the world’s leading Lucia over the next quarter-century, and helped to establish her as one of the greatest of all bel canto interpreters.

Later in The Times article it stated:

On disc one can hear all of Sutherland’s greatest stage roles, as well as several she sang only in the recording studio, among them Adina in L’elisir d’amore, Elvira in Ernani, Turandot (an enthralling portrayal, this), and Ah-Joe in Franco Leoni’s L’Oracolo.

One can also hear a wide variety of songs and arias — not just the expected Rossini and Donizetti, but also off-the-beaten-track French repertoire, operetta, and songs by the Bonynges’ devoted friend Noël Coward. On video several concerts are exceptionally rewarding, as are Lucia (Met), Norma (Toronto), Lucrezia Borgia (Covent Garden), and numerous portrayals taped in Sydney. Sutherland was also captivating as host and leading performer in a television series for youngsters, Who’s Afraid of Opera?, originally shown on American television.

Wow!  And I was also fascinated to read that Noel Coward was a devoted friend of the Bonynges.  Joan and her hubby actually recorded an album of Noel Coward’s works.   I suspect Noel rather fancied Richard Bonynge.

Back in the days when I lived in Adelaide, so possibly in the 1970’s, I attended the opera Lucia de Lammermoor, even though I was not a fan of opera.  I just wanted to see the world famous Joan Sutherland in person.  To be honest, I sat through the first two Acts wondering why she was so famous and well regarded, as it did nothing for me.  I just keeping seeing her as a Sydney typist, as she was in her early days.  And then in Act 3, came the Mad Scene, and I was blown away and became a fan for life.  I was stunned that she sang the aria as she did without any microphone or echo effects.  It was just her and her amazing voice.

You can hear the Mad Scene here.   The whole scene involves several arias and they evolve into the stunning arias that thrilled, amazed and excited me when I heard them sung stage. And they have ever since, on recordings. The Mad Scene is 16 mins 4 secs long in this recording.

I kid you not about the Mad Scene.    The New York Times today wrote:

At Ms. Sutherland’s first appearance (in America), before she had sung a note, there was an enthusiastic ovation. Following the first half of Lucia’s Mad Scene in the final act, which culminated in a glorious high E-flat, the ovation lasted almost 5 minutes. When she finished the scene and her crazed, dying Lucia collapsed to the stage floor, the ovation lasted 12 minutes.

Reviewing the performance in The New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg wrote that other sopranos might have more power or a sweeter tone, but “there is none around who has the combination of technique, vocal security, clarity and finesse that Miss Sutherland can summon.”

Please note:  All recordings on this page have classical CD dynamic range with very quiet sections, and loud sections.  The loudest sound level is set so that never clips (exceeds 0dB).  However you speakers might distort if you turn up the quiet sections too much, and get caught out by the loud sections.

Lucia di Lammermoor: O giusto cielo…Il dolce suono…Ardon gl’incensi

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(The arrow for play, vertical bars for volume control, and a pause button.)

The next recording features Dame Joan and her close friend Marilyn Horne in a 1965 live performance.  Ms Horne is a mezzo-soprano, with a lower reach than Dame Joan (soprano).  In Semiramide, Ms Horne plays the son of Dame Joan’s character.

Semiramide: Madre, addio!   3:04    Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne & Opera Company of Boston.  An opera in by Rossini.

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From the same opera, but a different performance, comes another great duet performance with Marilyn Horne:

Semiramide: “Serbami ognor”   7:57    Dame Joan Sutherland, London Symphony Orchestra, Marilyn Horne & Richard Bonynge

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The next track returns to Lucia di Lammermoor and a duet with Dame Joan and Luciano Pavarotti.

Lucia di Lammermoor: “Verranno a te sull’aure”    Dame Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden & Richard Bonynge

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The last of my excerpts from Lucia di Lammermoor is this stunning  aria.

Lucia di Lammermoor: “Chi mi frena in tal momento”   3:43   Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Dame Joan Sutherland, Huguette Tourangeau, Luciano Pavarotti, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Pier Francesco Poli, Richard Bonynge, Ryland Davies & Sherrill Milnes

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The next recording is an aria from the opera Faust by Charles Gounod.  It has an introduction that is unfamiliar to me, but 55 seconds in, it reveals a classic.

Faust: No. 31 “Alerte, alerte!” 5:19 Ambrosian Opera Chorus, Dame Joan Sutherland, Franco Corelli, London Symphony Orchestra, Nicolai Ghiaurov & Richard Bonynge

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Finally, we come to the song that Dame Joan Sutherland sang at the end of her final performance on the stage of the Sydney Opera House.

She also sang it at her final performance at Covent Garden in London, and this is the performance here.

Home sweet home 4:18 Dame Joan Sutherland, London Symphony Orchestra, Richard Bonynge & Tina Bonifacio

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Comments

  1. Thank you John for taking the time to make this special tribute … I look forward to listening to all recordings tomorrow. I have watched some tributes on Foxtel with great interest and admiration of her tremendous talent.

    Cheers, Ralph

    1. Author

      Ralph, thanks for your comment. I hope you’ll enjoy listening to the recordings. I’ve chosen arias with great melodies, although you might need to listen a few times to appreciate them (as with many modern songs). You comment has prompted me to change the player display to show the time remaining (instead of play time).

      By the way, I hadn’t heard the Semiramide arias until late last week when I was selecting tracks. I gather it’s not a well known opera, but I came across it in Amazon and liked the music immediately, so I bought these two tracks from iTunes, and ordered the complete opera from Amazon.

      Cheers,
      John

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