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.

Monday, October 04, 2010


If there were a prize for the most minimal set, it would undoubtedly go to the one seen in Pimlico Opera’s Madame Butterfly seen on September 19 at Grange Park. The curtain went up to reveal a low platform eight inches high that was all Pinkerton and Sharpless had to sit on as they quaffed their whiskey (no ‘milk-punch’). Behind them, one door shaped screen and a curved sheet of (?) plywood – an armchair was added in act two.

Some of the cast looked as if they had only recently donned long trousers, Sharpless/Andrew Ashwin, more like the Consulate office-boy than the boss, Gozo / Toblas Morz a gangling barrow-boy, Suzuki/Helen Sherman, just out of college. But Butterfly was a genuine oriental – Hye-Youh Lee, beautiful face and well able to sustain the very taxing but opportunity –full role that Puccini composed for her. If she could reduce the rather intrusive beat in her voice she would be ideal. That B.F. Pinkerton/Jesus Leon had a good powerful tenor voice, moderate actor; one could not help wondering how he scraped into the US forces seeing that he is, how should one say it gently, vertically challenged. The singers were all up to the mark, especially the married couple in their sumptuous duet in act one, surely the finest love duet that Puccini ever wrote. The result of that duet appeared later in person; the son of the house won all hearts.

I could have wished for more pointing of the themes in act one and a better balance for the Humming Chorus but otherwise Toby Purser directed a performance with the Neville Holt Orchestra that was satisfying reducing the audience, as it should, to tears, even your scribe, seeing probably his fiftieth or more performance of this wonderful opera.


In a mere quarter-of-a-century Gaetano Donizetti (1797 – 1848) managed to compose over sixty operas as well as a quantity of church music, string quartets etcetera. There were a few duds but mostly it was a success story, particularly the tragedy Lucia di Lammermoor and the comic L’Elisir d’Amore and Don Pasquale. A revival of the last-named had its first night on Sunday, September 12, part of what seems to be a Jonathan Miller residence – Cosi on the Friday and Donizetti on Sunday. In a review of the Mozart, the worthy doctor was commended for not committing the besetting sin of comedy direction: more motion than action, i.e. fidgeting. But it now appears that Jonathan was saving up his fidgets for Pasquale.

The design is credited to Isabelle Bywater but there can be little doubt that Miller inspired the theme. The audience is faced with three floors of a vast dollhouse, three rooms on each side with a central staircase. Traffic is fairly continuous (and ingenious) and the staircase is a kind of perpetuum mobile Upstairs-Downstairs. Apart from the four principals there are three old crones/servants.

Somewhere somebody has listed thirty-six plots which are the basis of most dramas and operas. Don Pasquale is apparently number twenty-eight, the one about the old buffer who weds a girl who behaves like a dove but turns into a hawk as soon as the marriage certificate is signed; she usually ends up with the buffer’s nephew. That is the plot of Pasquale with subplots consisting of a false notary (!) and the buffer’s manipulating friend, Malatesta. Norina reverts to dove status when she falls into the arms of Ernesto the nephew (a tenor, wouldn’t you know).

The music is a delight, genial, a bounty box choc-á-bloc with choice tunes, deft orchestration, great opportunities for the singers with much coloratura and patter in arias and ensembles (even a couple of fine chorus numbers) of impeccable style and shape.

Costa Rican soprano Irida Martinez has a clear voice and no little charm (but her second dress is unbecoming), Paolo Gavinelli is superb in the title-role, S. African Jacques Imbrailo is a marvellous Malatestra. American Berry Banks has been opera’s otto cento bel canto stalwart for yonks but can still get round the notes like nobody’s business even if the voice is losing its sap somewhat. He must be the smallest tenor in captivity. He sang the famous Serenade in the last act quite mellifluously.

Chorus and orchestra helped to make the evening full of pleasure directed by Evalino Pido from Turin, a performance with good tampi, style, precision accompaniment, the only let down was the brash brass playing. Maestro Pido would appear to be one of many conductors who confuses volume with intensity.

Alas, Don Pasquale, premiered in Paris in 1843, proved to be the penultimate opera by the Lion of Bergamo for shortly afterwards he became ill. Syphilis brought on insanity and he was also a prey to onanism which weakened him so much that it could be said that Donizetti died by his own hand.