09 February 2016

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Revisiting Dame Joan Sutherland’s Norma in its infancy, courtesy of Immortal Performances

REASON FOR CELEBRATION IN GAUL: Vincenzo Bellini - NORMA (Immortal Performances IPCD 1055-3)VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835): Norma—Dame Joan Sutherland (Norma), Marilyn Horne (Adalgisa), John Alexander (Pollione), Richard Cross (Oroveso), Betty Phillips (Clotilde), Karl Norman (Flavio); Chorus and Orchestra of Vancouver Opera; Richard Bonynge, conductor [Recorded ‘live in performance at Vancouver Opera on 26 October 1963; Immortal Performances IPCD 1055-3; 3 CDs, 216:41; Available from Immortal Performances; includes bonus material featuring Sutherland in arias and scenes from La traviata, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Alcina, Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto, and Tosca]

When writing about music, my foremost goals are to assess performances fairly and as knowledgeably as my flawed and woefully incomplete education and comprehension permit and to do so in a manner that always remains respectful of artists and their endeavors. Reconciling the pursuit of the first of these goals with adherence to my commitment to the second is not always an easy task, but my work is guided by a maxim often quoted by my grandmother, who still personifies its wisdom at the age of ninety-five: if I have nothing positive to say, it is better that I say nothing at all. In this age in which artists must endure the venomous barbs not only of wagging tongues and agenda-laden pens but also of likes and shares, tweets and retweets, and every imaginable public degradation of dignity and privacy, there is a war on criticism that is not unjustified. What I regret most is that the demands faced by artists—demands that often have little to do with singing—beget an environment in which the insecurities even of singers with little to fear from the stupidities of would-be critics diminish their abilities to reciprocate the conviction of those writers who respect them whether they sing like paragons or pillocks. With every good intention under heaven, however, there are performances about which I cannot be wholly impartial. One of these is the Vancouver Opera performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma of 26 October 1963, an illustrious evening in the production that inaugurated one of the most widely-traveled operatic portrayals of the second half of the Twentieth Century, the Norma of Australian soprano Dame Joan Sutherland. It was for her singing of the title rôle in Händel’s Alcina, also the rôle of her American début in Dallas in 1960, that the Venetian public christened her as La Stupenda, but her impersonation of Norma, a characterization revealed by the near-miraculous sonics achieved by Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances—an achievement described in a 2001 letter, reproduced in Immortal Performances’ typically superb liner notes [both Fanfare critic Henry Fogel’s introductory essay and Caniell’s and Robert Dales’s remembrances of Irving Guttman, the director of the Vancouver Opera Norma and source of the original recording that yielded this release, meaningfully enhance enjoyment of this Norma], by the conductor of the performance, Sutherland’s husband and frequent collaborator and Artistic Director of Vancouver Opera from 1974 until 1982, Richard Bonynge, as ‘wonderful, so present and vibrant’—to have been remarkably consistent from its inception in Vancouver to its final outings in staged form in Costa Mesa, California, and Detroit, Michigan, in 1989. After being exposed as a musically unambitious high-schooler to John Pritchard’s studio recording of Raymond Leppard’s abridged edition of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, Lorin Maazel’s DECCA Fidelio with Birgit Nilsson and James McCracken, and Sir Colin Davis’s Philips La bohème with Katia Ricciarelli and José Carreras, it was hearing the 1980 DECCA recording of Verdi’s La traviata—recommended to the aspiring singer that I was twenty years ago for Matteo Manuguerra’s under-appreciated Giorgio Germont rather than for its Violetta—that introduced me to Sutherland, and it was Sutherland whose tenacious dedication to respecting audiences by always giving of her best planted the seeds of my own diligence in respecting conscientious artists even when they fail. The most savage of Sutherland’s detractors, those who complain that her Norma lacked the psychological acuity brought to the part by Maria Callas and the fire-breathing abandon of Leyla Gencer’s study of the character, could never accuse her of outright failure; not when she sang the music as she does on these discs. What would a critic like Winthrop Sargeant, who wrote in The New Yorker in response to Sutherland’s first Norma at the Metropolitan Opera in 1970, among words of praise for the overall quality of her vocalism, that ‘hers is a cold coloratura voice, without much emotional coloring,’ say were he able to hear Immortal Performances’ restoration of this document of Sutherland’s Norma in its infancy with performances of Norma at the MET—indeed, in any of the world’s opera houses—in recent seasons in his mind’s ear?

Richard Bonynge said of his wife in a 2011 interview with The Australian, not long after her passing on 10 October 2010 [perhaps some sort of cosmic symmetry is reflected in this most balanced of artists having made her final exit from life’s stage on 10.10.10], that ‘she didn’t need applause, she was a very down-to-earth, practical lady. It’s quite true she had no idea of the importance of what she’d done in the world. You could tell her, but I don’t think she really listened. She loved to sing and that was it.’ The bonus material included on this Immortal Performances release confirms the validity of Bonynge’s appraisal of his consort’s musical ethos. From her first North American performances of Violetta in La traviata with Opera Company of Philadelphia, also directed by Irving Guttman, are drawn the final ten minutes of Act One and the magnificent scene for Violetta and Germont père in Act Two, pairing Sutherland first with Mississippi-born tenor John Alexander’s Alfredo and then with French baritone Gabriel Bacquier’s Giorgio. Predictably superb in ‘Sempre libera degg’io folleggiar di gioia in gioia,’ she reaches more exalted heights of expression in her interactions with Bacquier than contemporary accounts of her Violetta, most of which are founded upon unfavorable comparisons with Callas’s very different interpretation of the rôle, suggest were within her purview.

An especially valuable addition to Sutherland’s discography is the scene from Act Three of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg that culminates in the great Quintet, here sung in English in a performance extracted from a 1957 Covent Garden gala and nobly conducted by Rafael Kubelík. Alongside James Pease’s Hans Sachs, the young Jon Vickers’s Walther, John Lanigan’s David, and Noreen Berry’s Magdalene, Sutherland voices Eva’s lines with an ideal blend of vocal freshness and amplitude. This is an Eva with a genuine trill whose tones are not apt to go missing in ensembles! Die Meistersinger, sung in Wagner’s original German, was in Covent Garden’s repertory in the 1956 –1957 Season, during which Sutherland’s Eva auf Deutsch was complemented by the David of Sir Peter Pears and the Beckmesser of Sir Geraint Evans, with Pease singing Sachs and the little-remembered Erich Witte as Walther: perhaps some collector has a recording of a complete Meistersinger from the January 1957 run that could be shared with Immortal Performances.

Sampling the opera that was the vehicle for her Teatro La Fenice and North American débuts in 1960 and the rôle of her triumphant MET début a year later, excerpts from a 1959 BBC concert broadcast conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent offer arias from Alcina and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. The brilliance of Sutherland’s fiorature in Lucia’s ‘Regnava nel silenzio’ is unsurprising, but ears accustomed to the avian fluttering of the small voices frequently employed in Baroque repertory since the 1970s may be stunned to hear an instrument as vast as Sutherland’s reveling in the intricacies of Alcina’s ‘Dì, cor mio, quanto t’amai’ and Morgana’s familiar ‘Tornami a vagheggiar,’ the Dame from Down Under hardly being the only Alcina guilty of usurping her sister’s showpiece aria. Sutherland was a far more stylish Händel singer than many historically-informed performance practice advocates have been willing to acknowledge, her ornamentation when left to her own devices—the differences among the Kölner Rundfunk performance of Alcina conducted by Ferdinand Leitner and the DECCA studio recording prepared and led by Bonynge are particularly telling in that regard—unfailingly tasteful and far more restrained than might be imagined. The richness of the timbre and, of course, the trills are truly revelatory and inarguably period-appropriate. After all, she famously quipped whilst recording the title rôle in Händel’s Athalia with The Academy of Ancient Music late in her career that she was the oldest period instrument in the room! Under the direction of Donald Vorhees in gems from the Bell Telephone Hour transmission of 22 March 1968, Sutherland’s Gilda manages to marginalize Tito Gobbi’s Rigoletto, Nicolai Gedda’s Duca di Mantova, and Mildred Miller’s Maddalena in the rightly beloved Quartet from Act Four of Verdi’s Rigoletto. Gobbi takes revenge of sorts in Scarpia’s confrontation with the heroine from Act Two of Puccini’s Tosca. Gobbi is not as secure of voice or dramatic instincts as when he sparred with Callas’s Tosca in the 1950s, but he remains a Scarpia of visceral menace, here facing a Tosca he could not dominate solely via vocal means. Sutherland’s studio recording of Tosca’s ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore’ was appended in one CD reissue to her DECCA recording of Suor Angelica, another piece in which she excelled, not least in Australian Opera performances that united her in 1977 with the implacable Zia Principessa of Rosina Raisbeck, but the thoroughly competent studio reading of the aria pales in comparison with this performance. For once, one need not make apologies for the sounds with which the Tosca at hand professes to have lived for Art. Sound quality in these selections is not High Fidelity, but, as in the Vancouver Norma, Caniell’s wizardry produces aural ambiances in which one hears all that one needs to hear in order to marvel at the stylistic variety of which Sutherland—she of the ‘cold coloratura voice’—was capable.

Recorded at Irving Guttman’s request via a house feed in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, the audio quality of the Vancouver Norma is imperfect, the voices sounding varyingly distant as the singers move about the stage and the orchestra frequently over-prominent, but, based upon surveys of previous recorded incarnations of this performance, the source materials for which are conspicuously unidentified, Caniell has considerably brightened the sonic landscape, granting the voices clear focus without jeopardizing accuracy and stability of pitch. Vitally, though, the depth of the sound enables a far better cognition of the size and thrust of Sutherland’s voice than her studio recordings permit, and one adjusts to the sound quickly as the performance draws one into the drama. To Vancouver Opera’s credit, Sutherland is surrounded by an ensemble of singers who merit the distinction of taking part in such an historic occasion. Bonynge remained ‘green’ as a conductor of opera when he mounted the podium for the Vancouver performances of Norma, and if his pacing of the performance on these discs lacks the idiomatic drive and command of nuance brought to the score by Vittorio Gui and Tullio Serafin there is no want for attentive support of the singers, an element for which one often searches in vain in today’s performances. The Vancouver Opera Chorus and Orchestra, giving Bellini’s score its first hearing in Canada, obviously prepared fastidiously for their tasks, their work undermined by commendably—astonishingly, really—few mistakes and virtually no lapses in ensemble. Soprano Betty Phillips and tenor Karl Norman are more than serviceable as Clotilde and Flavio, never embarrassing themselves in their scenes with their larger-voiced colleagues. Bass-baritone Richard Cross is a vocally solid Oroveso who evinces a measure of sympathy for the father’s predicament, his voicing of ‘Ite sul colle, o druidi’ in Act One and ‘Ah! del Tebro al giogo indegno’ in Bellini’s Act Two—Vancouver Opera’s Act Four—gratifyingly secure. Sutherland’s Philadelphia Alfredo, as well as her leading man in MET performances of La sonnambula, Lucia di Lammermoor, Norma, La fille du régiment, Les contes d’Hoffmann, La traviata, and Esclarmonde, John Alexander is in this Vancouver performance an even more reliable Pollione than he was in the 1964 RCA Victor/DECCA studio recording of Norma, in which he and Sutherland were also reunited with their Vancouver Adalgisa and Oroveso. Here, Alexander sings ‘Meco all’altar di Venere era Adalgisa in Roma’ phenomenally, his top notes impressive despite the paucity of the squillo of a Lauri-Volpi, Penno, or Corelli, and machismo mixes with suavity in his red-blooded account of the cabaletta ‘Me protegge, me difende un poter maggior di loro.’ The impact of Alexander’s bronze-toned singing of ‘Va', crudele; al dio spietato offri in dote al sangue mio’ in the duet with Adalgisa is tremendous, and he continues to build momentum with fearless showings in the trio that ends Act One and the stirring duet with Norma in Act Two [again, Act Four in the Vancouver production], ‘In mia man alfin tu sei,’ in which he proves more capable than many Polliones by singing all of the roulades entrusted to him by Bellini rather than ceding half of them to Norma. Moreover, when he sings ‘Ma tu morendo, non m'aborrire, pria di morire, perdona a me’ in the opera’s final scene, Alexander is the rare Pollione who sounds as though he means it.

MIRA, O NORMA: Mezzo-soprano MARILYN HORNE as Adalgisa (left) and soprano DAME JOAN SUTHERLAND as Norma (right) in San Francisco Opera's 1982 production of Vincenzo Bellini's NORMA [Photographer not credited; photo © by San Francisco Opera]Mira, o Norma: Mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne as Adalgisa (left), Thomas Garadis as Norma’s and Pollione’s son (center), and soprano Dame Joan Sutherland as the title heroine (right) in San Francisco Opera’s 1982 production of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma [Photographer not credited; photo © by San Francisco Opera]

Listeners familiar with the 1964 studio recording or the storied MET broadcast of 4 April 1970, one of the truly legendary afternoons in MET history, are already acquainted with the feats that Marilyn Horne accomplished in her performances of Bellini’s music for Adalgisa. Composed for Giulia Grisi, the rôle was commandeered by mezzo-sopranos by the beginning of the Twentieth Century, but Horne, though a mezzo-soprano herself, restored to the part the flair and unflinching command of the range of the music that Grisi surely brought to it. From the first notes of her expansively-phrased ‘Sgombra è la salva secra’ in this performance, she fashions a depiction of Adalgisa that veritably defines bel canto, musically and dramatically. She answers Alexander’s ‘Va', crudele’ with a firm but feminine ‘E tu pure, ah! tu non sai quanto costi a me dolente!’ Then, divulging the shame of her affair with Pollione to Norma, she projects both embarrassment and the frisson of young love in ‘Sola, furtiva, al tempio io l’aspettai sovente.’ Sutherland’s and Horne’s singing of ‘Ah! sì, fa' core, e abbracciami’ was one of the musical wonders of the Twentieth Century, and here, in one of its earliest manifestations, it is an artistic equivalent of Old Faithful—a sensation both in the moment and in the dependability with which it was repeated throughout the duration of the singers’ Norma partnership. Horne articulates ‘Oh! qual traspare orribile dal tuo parlar mistero!’ and ‘Ah! non fia, non fia ch’io costi al tuo core sì rio dolore’ in the trio with the potency of an earnest Sieglinde pleading for Brünnhilde’s protection. Norma’s and Adalgisa’s ‘Deh! con te, con te, li prendi,’ ‘Mira, o Norma, a' tuoi ginocchi questi cari pargoletti,’ and ‘Sì, fino all’ore estreme compagna tua m’avrai’ in Act Two constitute one of the finest sequences in Italian opera, and no listener past, present, or future could hope to hear this music executed more electrifyingly than Sutherland and Horne sing it in this performance. One of the gnawing enigmas of Norma is the uncertainty of Adalgisa’s fate after her final duet with Norma: some productions insert her into the opera’s final scene as an observer, but this is an extrapolation rather than a faithful realization of Bellini’s and his librettist Felice Romani’s stage directions. The singing of many recent Adalgisas has inspired an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ reaction: having endured their vocalism, one is not overly concerned with the future of the character they portrayed. Horne’s Adalgisa, on the other hand, deserves her own opera in which to explore her life post-Norma. Horne did not long retain Adalgisa in her repertory, reuniting with Sutherland at Covent Garden in 1967 and for seven performances at San Francisco Opera in 1982 and singing the rôle at the MET twenty-five times in 1970 from her company début on 3 March until the matinée broadcast performance of 19 December, Sutherland her Norma in each of those performances, but not returning to the part at the MET between the opening of the 1973 revival of the Deiber production for Montserrat Caballé and her retirement from the company in 1996, but she was already an Adalgisa for the ages at the time of this Vancouver performance. From perspectives of both technical prowess and histrionic credibility, few singers in recent memory have as completely inhabited a rôle as Horne did Adalgisa.

Vocally, neither Callas nor any other singer consistently sang Norma’s music as accurately or as easily as Sutherland sang it, and this performance reveals that her dominion over the notes of the part was present from the inception of her interpretation. That an artist as attentive as Sutherland was to ensuring that she gave every audience who gathered to hear her a memorable experience should have sung a rôle only when she was painstakingly prepared to do so might be taken for granted, but this recording confirms the breadth of Sutherland’s artistic integrity. A weapon in Sutherland’s vocal arsenal that few singers in the Twenty-First Century can cite as a component of their own work is the immediately-identifiable timbre: she has here produced no more than two notes in ‘Sedizïose voci, voci di guerra’ before an irrefutable signal rushes from the ears to the brain, saying, ‘Ah, yes, this is definitely Dame Joan!’ Few Normas would be likely to dispute the assertion that ‘Casta diva, che inargenti queste sacre antiche piante’ is one of the most difficult arias in the soprano repertory, its exacting legato—the ‘melodie lunghe, lunghe, lunghe’ of which Verdi wrote—taxing a singer’s breath support as dauntingly as the most fiendish fiorature. Nevertheless, there is nothing tentative about Sutherland’s singing of the aria in this performance. She must have been nervous to some degree, but whatever apprehension she felt was kept far from the vocal cords. It was frequently said even at this juncture in her career that Sutherland’s diction was quite poor, but I am apparently fluent in the idiosyncratic dialect in which she sings on these discs as I encounter little trouble with discerning the text. The aria’s cantilena is shaped with intelligence and imagination. Sutherland does not treat ‘Fine al rito; e il sacro bosco sia disgombro dai profani’ merely as a conduit from aria to cabaletta, but, once arriving at the cabaletta, she hurls out the divisions and top notes in ‘Ah! bello a me ritorna del fido amor primiero’ with almost insouciant assurance. The first duet with Horne is pure magic: if Giuditta Pasta and Giulia Grisi sang this more beautifully than Sutherland and Horne sing it here, they can hardly have been of this world. Not even Callas and Ebe Stignani or Giulietta Simionato sang the passages in thirds so precisely. Bonynge has not yet fully sorted out how to keep the sprawling trio moving seamlessly, but Sutherland, Horne, and Alexander generate energy that propels the music towards its organic conclusion. Many Normas come to grief in the coloratura outbursts that preface a pair of top Cs, but Sutherland is unperturbed, her calm negotiations of her part’s obstacles encompassing unflappable traversals of ‘Oh, non tremare, o perfido’ and ‘Oh! Di qual sei tu vittima crudo e funesto inganno!’ Vehemence seemingly was not part of her natural temperament, but her singing of ‘Vanne, sì: mi lascia, indegno, figli oblia, promesse, onore’ is not without flashes of the anger of a scorned woman. Among her Normas widely available on compact disc, only the top Ds that brought the curtains down on Act One in the 1969 Teatro Colón broadcast and the earlier of the two 1970 MET broadcasts match the stellar D6 in this performance in conveying a sense of the titanic dimensions of Sutherland’s voice.

Sutherland was not the singing actress to unleash Imelda Staunton-esque intensity in the scene at the start of Act Two in which the distraught Norma contemplates slaying her own children, but in this performance her ‘Dormono entrambi’ throbs with the conflicting passions of a betrayed lover and maternal instincts. It is inconceivable that any Norma could ignore the entreaties of Horne’s Adalgisa in ‘Mira, o Norma,’ but Sutherland’s Norma’s acquiescence is all the more touching for being voiced with such beauty and impeccable sculpting of line. Assiduous students of bel canto could find no better models for perusal than Sutherland’s and Horne’s singing of the duets for Norma and Adalgisa in this performance: their tones ideally projected, the breath support unfaltering, with lines driven by vowels, the ladies’ endeavors perfectly embody the primary tenet of bel canto defined when Mathilde Marchesi wrote that ‘sound is a property of the air, as colour is of light, for there can be no sound without air, any more than there can be colour without light.’ Following his colleagues’ examples, Alexander’s singing in the duet ‘In mia man alfin tu sei’ is gloriously heroic but unimpeachably stylish, but even his sterling efforts are eclipsed by Sutherland’s Herculean performance. What warmth and profundity of emotion that ‘cold coloratura voice’ radiates! The interpolated E♭6 with which she crowns the duet—a note that she attempted in performances of Norma only in Vancouver and in her first Covent Garden Normas in 1967, when Horne was again her Adalgisa—is staggering, a colossal, thrillingly secure sound from the throat not of a canary but of a cannon cloaked in velvet. Sutherland does not rival Callas’s dramatic fervor with her utterance of Norma’s critical mea culpa, ‘Son io,’ but her unaffected enunciation of those two most important words in the opera is effective on its own terms. The sheer tonal pulchritude with which she delivers ‘Qual cor tradisti, qual cor perdesti’ and ‘Deh! non volerli vittime del mio fatale errore’ is arresting, ending the opera not as a singer who has put in a good evening’s work but as a Norma who, burned by life, seeks refuge and respite in a fiery death.

As mind-boggling as the sangfroid with which Sutherland ascended to this summit of Lyric Art on her first attempt is the fact that Norma remained in her repertory for nearly twenty-six years. Amassing more than 120 performances of the rôle in the quarter-century spanning the period from her Vancouver performances to those for Opera Pacific and Michigan Opera Theatre, she is likely the most-heard Norma in the opera’s history. In a Los Angeles Times interview after a rehearsal for one of her valedictory Costa Mesa Normas in 1989, Sutherland responded to a question about bel canto purists who objected to her downward transpositions of certain passages by saying, ‘Well, the purists don’t have to sing, do they?’ This epitomizes her candor and no-nonsense approach to maintaining equilibrium among service to the composer, management of her vocal resources, and fulfilling audiences’ expectations. Listening to Immortal Performances’ edition of this Vancouver Opera Norma has given me pause to consider why Norma is my favorite opera—a favorite opera alongside Händel’s Tamerlano, Verdi’s Don Carlos and Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, that is. The enchantingly diverse Normas of Gina Cigna, Zinka Milanov, Maria Callas, Leyla Gencer, Cristina Deutekom, Rita Hunter, and Marisa Galvany are those that have molded my understanding of the opera’s theatrical potential, but hearing this Vancouver performance with the clarity and scope of detail that Richard Caniell’s restoration facilitates causes me to fully appreciate and extol the extent to which Dame Joan Sutherland is as responsible as Bellini might claim to be for my love for Norma.

BELLES OF BEL CANTO: Soprano DAME JOAN SUTHERLAND as Norma and mezzo-soprano MARILYN HORNE as Adalgisa in Vincenzo Bellini’s NORMA at the Metropolitan Opera in April 1970 [Photo by Louis Mélançon, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Belles of bel canto: Soprano Dame Joan Sutherland as Norma and mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne as Adalgisa in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma at the Metropolitan Opera in April 1970 [Photo by Louis Mélançon, © by The Metropolitan Opera]