Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Joan Sutherland

November 1926 – October 2010

When she first had her singing equipment examined by Ivor Griffiths, famous E.N.T. specialist, he declared he had never seen such a large and perfect set of vocal cords. This gift from heaven was unfortunately complemented by sinus trouble that plagued her all her life. But that naturally beautiful voice from an early age was lucky never to have been tampered with by faulty teaching. Her other stroke of fortune was to be coached, first of all in her native Australia, later in England, by Richard Bonynge, pianist, husband and subsequently her conductor.

In her early days she worshipped the sound of Kirsten Flagstad’s voice and thought she might be a Wagnerian soprano. An obsession to sing in Covent Garden led her, after winning competitions and dates at home, to come ‘overseas’. After several auditions she was accepted by the Royal Opera and in 1952 she sang First Lady, High Priestess and Clotilde (to Callas’ Norma), soon graduating to Amelia, Helmwige, Woglinde (are you with me?), then Aida, Agatha, Lady Rich and Jenifer in The Midsummer Marriage. Many of us still remember her limpid tones in that last-named opera, whose plot she did not understand, and incomprehension that only increased when the composer Michael Tippett explained to her what it was all about.

Sutherland was fortunate in that she not only had Bonynge to coach her but that David Webster, the Intendant of the Royal Opera, believed in her. Richard Bonynge adored the music of the first half of the nineteenth century (Italians often call it the Otto Cento). Webster through she could sing Lucia (di Lammermoor) and persuaded his board to send her to Italy to study the role with Tullio Serafin, Grand Old Man of Italian Opera, who had been Callas’ mentor and conductor. Webster also had the vision to appoint Zeffirelli as director. This great producer took Joan in hand, coaching, coaxing and positively glamorising the tall, still rather gawky, big chinned lass from Sydney. He transformed her into a queen of the stage while Serafin and Bonynge saw to the musical and vocal side. The watershed premiere on 17 February 1959 made Sutherland a star, the audience cheered and cheered. She could command her future, appearing in the world’s most famous opera houses. Yet she did not become a diva in the bad sense, she was a success but she did not inhale, she was a star but with her feet on the earth.

Vienna, Paris, The Met, La Scala, Covent Garden – as someone charmingly misquoted: “the world was her lobster”. Bonynge began to try his hand with the baton. It was precarious at first as he wasn’t able to begin quietly out of town, it was the big houses where she sang. Gradually he improved; and of course it was ever so convenient. Recordings proliferated; and sold well. There was a tenor they liked to work with: name, Pavarotti. And there was a mezzo they also liked: name Marilyn Horne. Towards the end of her career in 1990 her excellent biographer, dame Norma Major, catalogued her performances. Lucia di Lammermoor she sang an amazing 221 times; other statistics:

  • Tales of Hoffmann – 124
  • Norma – 111
  • Violetta - 81
  • Elvira (Puritani) – 67
  • Donna Anna – 61
  • Anna Glavari – 57
  • Lucrezia Borgie - 51
  • Anna Bolena – 30
  • Leonora (Trovatore) – 31
  • Semiramide – 34
  • Gilda – 22
  • Desdemona – 21

And she sang at least another 36 roles.

Your scribe remembers in particular the Lucia premiere, Semirmide at la Scala (at curtain down one o’clock somebody said “if that was a semi-ramide, how long would a whole one take?), a Don Giovanni with Siepi, Lorengar, Kraus c. Böhm – Bruno Walter said he had never seen a better Donna Anna – and any number of Daughters of the Reg. – Joan could let her hair down and be funny, and one of the final Merry Widows in Sydney; she entered smiling and deprecatingly as if to say: “ok, fellers, so I’m an OAP but the music is good, lets have a ball” – and she sang like a joyful bird.

It was a husband and wife team that worked and it also solved the problem of loneliness that many solo artists complained of. Bonynge’s decorations of the text did not please conductors at first; Lorin Maazel baulked at appoggiaturas and Sir Adrian Boult was moved to make his only witticism ever: “mad scenes from the Messiah”.

Her (and mostly their) recordings sold like hot cakes: 37 complete operas, give or take the odd Woodbird and operetta, including such rarities as Massenet’s Esclarmonde.

About practically every famous musician there is gossip or some nastiness: there was nothing about Joan, she was jolly, good company, a real human being, keen on needlework and gardening, rather shy, good sense of humour, doting on her son Adam. Latterly they had lived in the French speaking part of Switzerland, clean air for her troublesome sinus, not far from a convenient airport (Geneva). Their house was right next door to their friend Noël Coward.

It was while gardening last year that she fell, breaking both legs. She was ill a long time, her crippling arthritis got worse and she made her final cadence on Sunday, 10 October, aged eighty-three, la Stupenda is no more.

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