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11 January, 2015

Response to colleague with stern criticism of Sutherland and Bonynge.

I often marvel at people who have retrospective advice on how Joan Sutherland could have had a more successful career … they take on some task and I admire their chutzpah.  

That being said, those who were around at the time of her entry into the world of opera (1957 to 1963 let’s say) agree on at least one thing: Joan Sutherland had an ability to sing up the stave with the same very full quality voice to an E flat with total ease and precision.  She did one or two E naturals and an F in The Magic Flute but basically her trade mark was a terminal E flat and coming at the end (usually) of a well sung aria it usually brought the house down (and got the crits writing effusively about the effects on their spleen or solar plexus or whatever).  This she did for about 25 years, only transposing downwards by a couple of semi-tones in the last few years of her long career (but who carries a tuning fork?).

Wagner never requires this of his soprano.  Some of the most successful Wagnerian women even omit the final C in Siegfried and are still lauded across the opera world.  Wagner required a different quality, rather like a Jewish cantor.  The singer had to sing for hours on end (up to six in some of his operas) where most Italian opera arias go for three minutes, the odd mad scene for fifteen, give or take some recitative.  

So while Sutherland may well have been able to sing Wagner roles, she would not necessarily have done so for very long (vide the story of Nellie Melba doing the Brunnhilde role in Siegfried with disastrous consequences).  And would JS have been as famous?  Would she have sung with Pavarotti?  Some people just don’t like Richard Bonynge … yet it is hard to imagine Sutherland without him … and he continues conducting more than 20 years after his wife retired so somebody must think he has some talent on the podium. I certainly do.

I just read a scathing criticism of Sutherland, lamenting that she never sang Elektra! Basically it proves that the Bard was right when he said comparisons were odorous.  Or as Callas famously said: “If you don’t like my voice, stay home!”  And if Sutherland had sung Richard Strauss she may have damaged her voice and not had the long career she did.

Some believe that Sutherland sang the wrong repertoire … others may say she sang ‘muck’ (Nellie Melba’s advice to Clara Butt) … nor do some like the way Sutherland sings (‘she scoops’ I sometimes hear).  Yet as well as her high coloratura she had an incomparable trill. Her staccato notes, acciacature and stratospheric cadenza runs could show up great singers half her age even in her very last studio recording, Ernani. She embellishes an aria she had recorded nearly 30 years earlier … that is NOT an opera record, but must run very close! Yes, there are some scoops but if you listen to the last minute of the clip you would be basalt not to be blown asunder.

Sutherland’s Turandot with Caballé is pretty incredible … but perhaps that is ‘muck’ too … like Lucia, Rigoletto, Puritani and Sonnambula (each recorded twice by JS, the second time with Pavarotti in all four cases).  She also made pretty creditable attempts at Mozart: Don Giovanni, Nozze di Figaro, Idomeneo.  And her lone recording (video) of the first act of Tosca (plus Vissi d’arte) and Suor Angelica show that she could sing ‘standard’ Puccini (if there IS ‘standard’ Puccini) as well.  

And she did the comic roles of Anna Glawari and Rosalinda.  And the home-town girl in Carmen.  And the best set of Christmas carols I have ever heard (in fact I don’t think I ever want to hear any others!).  And she did the ‘bleeding chunks’ from Wagner’s great operas.  And Beethoven’s Ninth.  And Traviata, Trovatore, Elisir, Beatrice di Tenda, Esclamonde and more,

It is true that Sutherland’s voice changed dramatically … from a bell-like pure, crystal instrument in the recordings from 1957 to 1962 and then to the vocal locomotive we knew for more or less thirty years.  I first heard her sing Hoffmann in about 1976, then Norma, Lakmé, Alcina and the rest to Huguenots in 1990 in Sydney.  I also heard her Anna Bolena in London in about 1986.  She was incomparable … if you like that sort of thing.  But if you don’t, I say, like Callas, ‘stay home’ (or go to the footy).  

Written by Andrew Byrne ..