14 May 2018

ARTS IN ACTION: The Operatic Wizards of Oz — Eminent conductor Brian Castles-Onion and Désirée Records preserve the legacies of Australia's foremost vocal artists

ARTS IN ACTION: Desirée Records releases devoted to the careers of Australian artists NANCE GRANT, ROBERT ALLMAN, and JUNE BRONHILL (GAV 001, GAV 002, & GAV 003)
ARTS IN ACTION: Desirée Records releases devoted to the careers of Australian soprano DAME JOAN SUTHERLAND (GAV 004 & GAV 005)[1] Great Australian Voices – Nance Grant, soprano [Désirée Records GAV 001; 3 CDs; Available from Fish Fine Music]

[2] Great Australian Voices – Robert Allman, baritone [Désirée Records GAV 002; 3 CDs; Available from Fish Fine Music]

[3] Great Australian Voices – June Bronhill, soprano [Désirée Records GAV 003; 3 CDs; Available from Fish Fine Music]

[4] Great Australian Voices – Dame Joan Sutherland, soprano [Performances recorded in Melbourne and Sydney during the Sutherland-Williamson Grand Opera Season, July – October 1965; Désirée Records GAV 004; 4 CDs; Available from Fish Fine Music]

[5] Great Australian Voices – The Australia House Recital 1959—Dame Joan Sutherland, soprano; Richard Bonynge, piano [Recorded in performance at Australia House, London, UK, 18 June 1959; Désirée Records GAV 005; 1 CD; Available from Fish Fine Music]

If one establishes as the objective of one’s artistic endeavors a summarization of the ethos of a time, a place, or a people, how does one pursue the fulfillment of that goal? In which medium can the collective ideals of a culture be best expressed? Walt Whitman made a persuasive argument for poetry with Leaves of Grass, in which he created one of the most complete and compelling portraits of Nineteenth-Century America available to modern observers. The Zeitgeist of Victorian England haunts the novels of Charles Dickens, and every cry for equality and plea for peace of the 1960s resounds in the songs of Bob Dylan. These are the works of artists whose creative impulses and intellects were shaped by the eras that they immortalized, and in this distinction is the crux of what makes Désirée Records both unique and invaluable. Dedicated to the preservation and celebration of the legacies of Australia’s foremost vocal artists, many of whom were never adequately appreciated or are now too little-remembered beyond Oceania, Désirée Records and the label’s founder, conductor and voice connoisseur Brian Castles-Onion, are affectionately restoring to these singers the reputations they earned with performances that deserve worldwide adulation.

Though hardly the first Classically-trained singer of Australian birth to win fame in her native land, Dame Nellie Melba was the first Australian opera singer to enjoy widespread recognition throughout the world. That Melba studied in Melbourne with a teacher who was herself a pupil of the celebrated pedagogue Manuel García, the brother of Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot and son of the tenor who was Rossini’s first Norfolk in Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra and Conte Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia, reveals a tradition of vocal training in Australia that places the emergence of the great Australian voices of the Twentieth Century in a well-established tradition that many Eurocentric histories of singing have overlooked. Like many American singers of her time, Melba conquered opera in Europe, and details of the crucial context of her formative experiences in her homeland were outnumbered in musical annals by tales of her European successes, as well as by memories of her rapturously-received appearances at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. In addition to support of Australian art and artists, Melba bequeathed to her countrymen an example of translating appreciation in Australia into global stardom with a fluency that perhaps only Dame Joan Sutherland (1926 – 2010) can truthfully be said to have matched in subsequent generations.

Melba was unquestionably a phenomenon, but she was not an operatic Uluṟu, a musical monolith rising out of an uncultured desert. Still, mimicking modern expressions of time, opera in Australia can be categorized into AM and PM periods: ante-Melba and post-Melba. With the indefatigable concertizing in support of Australia’s armed forces in World War One that secured her appointment as a Dame Commander of the British Empire and the seemingly interminable cycles of farewell appearances that ushered her into a jocund colloquialism, Melba honed the persona of the quintessentially Australian prima donna, as temperamental as that distinction implies but singularly practical and hard-working. Her legacy continued on the world’s stages first by Florence Austal and later by Marjorie Lawrence, Melba imparted to aspiring Australian singers both the drive to succeed and the necessity of developing an ironclad technique akin to the mastery of bel canto that she learned from Mathilde Marchesi.

Melba’s extant recordings are mostly sonically paleolithic, but they furnish dim glimpses of the magic that the voice could wield. Owing to their various provenances, there are selections on Désirée Records discs that suffer from poor sound. Unlike some ill-advised attempts at remastering Melba’s recordings, however, Castles-Onion’s work is focused on faithfully recreating voices’ individual timbres, avoiding the distortion and false overtones that can result from aggressive processing of archival recordings. In the context of material of the vintage heard on these Désirée Records releases, some of which was recorded non-professionally and under less-than-ideal conditions, only varying sound quality is wholly faithful to the source recordings. These discs are the aural equivalents of the weathered family Bibles so beloved by many Americans: the pages are crinkled, discolored, and torn, but the potency of the message is not lessened by the dilapidated state of the vessel.

Among these discs, the recording of Sutherland’s 1959 Australia House recital is the most challenging for the listener in terms of its soundscape, but the ears that cannot adjust to the difficult sound for the sake of hearing the youthful, exuberant, dauntlessly virtuosic singing that Sutherland shared with the London audience—and it can be heard to thrilling effect—are listening for the wrong reasons. Four months after the Covent Garden performances of Lucia di Lammermoor that catapulted her to international recognition, Sutherland remained on pristine form, offering a programme that at least temporarily quashes contentions that she was an unimaginative singer. Alongside selections typical of her recital repertoire in the first decade of her career—arias from Händel’s Alcina and Rodelinda, Elvira’s mad scene from Bellini’s I puritani, and music for another Elvira, the heroine of Verdi’s Ernani—Sutherland sang numbers from Dalayrac’s Nina, Paisiello’s La molinara, Arne’s Love in a Village, Lehár’s Merry Widow, and Shield’s Rosina, all of them voiced with astonishing freedom and immediacy. The surprises come in her performances of songs by Arditi, Arne, Dvořák, Grieg, Leoncavallo, and Rachmaninoff. Seldom admired for her handling of text even before the much-discussed sinus surgery that she underwent in the same year as the first Covent Garden Lucia and this Australia House recital, La Stupenda is unlikely to be proclaimed a peer of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the merit of these song performances, but this is not the Sutherland of the mid-career studio recordings, in the contexts of which diction can be problematic. The words in this recital were surprisingly crisp and genuinely felt. Detrimental though it is to the overall experience of this disc, the imperfect sound focuses the attention on listening closely to every note and syllable that Sutherland produces. It is a visceral journey that every Twenty-First-Century listener who wonders why Sutherland was adored by many operaphiles should make.

Like Melba before her, Sutherland was a phenomenon whose work was applauded in almost every locale in which she appeared, and Désirée Records’ release devoted to Melbourne and Sydney performances from the 1965 Sutherland-Williamson Grand Opera Season allows today’s listeners to hear her singing as it sounded to the audiences who applauded her. Even amidst a plethora of widely-circulated in-house, broadcast, and studio recordings, connoisseurs and her countrymen know that, whether at the outset or in the twilight of her career, Sutherland was never on better form than when singing before an Australian audience. Her DECCA account of Puccini’s music for the heroine of Suor Angelica is beautifully sung, but, when performing the rôle on stage in Sydney opposite the draconian Zia Principessa of Rosina Raisbeck, she sang the character, not merely the music. Likewise, time’s effects on the voice, an immense instrument that challenged recording technology, were often magnified by studio microphones but seemed less apparent and sometimes inconsequential in Australian performances. When Sutherland returned to Australia after triumphs in London, Milan, New York, and Chicago to revitalize the touring company inaugurated decades earlier by American-born J. C. Williamson, whose entrepreneurial ambition contributed indelibly to Melba’s popularity in Australia, her performances combined the vigor and vocal health of youth with the discipline and experience of a seasoned artist.

In excerpts from the 1965 Sutherland-Williamson Grand Opera Season Melbourne staging of Lucia di Lammermoor, Sutherland is joined by John Alexander as Edgardo, Cornelis Opthof as Enrico, Dorothy Cole as Alisa, Clifford Grant as Raimondo and Sergei Baigildin as Arturo, the last two of whom reprised their parts with Opera Australia when Sutherland sang Lucia in Sydney in 1986. In addition to having sung Pollione in the first of Sutherland’s studio recordings of Norma and partnering her in MET performances in New York and on tour, including in Lucia di Lammermoor, Alexander respectively portrayed Pollione and Gennaro in Sutherland’s début performances in Vancouver of the title rôles in Norma and Lucrezia Borgia. Edgardo was a part to which he was well suited, and he was in strong voice in Melbourne, giving Edgardo’s music beauty and brawn. Still, the spotlight is naturally on Sutherland, and she does not disappoint. The significance of any loss of verbal clarity suffered since the 1959 Covent Garden outing is lessened by the increased confidence of the singing: an affecting Lucia in 1959, she was an engrossing one in 1965.

Also sampled are Sydney performances of Lucia di Lammermoor from later in the same year, represented by Elizabeth Harwood’s traversal of Lucia’s ‘Ardon gl’incensi,’ more fragile than the madness of Sutherland’s Lucia but no less spellbinding, and an unexpected but stirring account of Edgardo’s ‘Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali’ by Alberto Remedios, whose lauded Siegfried for Sadler’s Wells and superb Melbourne Tristan, both opposite Rita Hunter, would eventually overshadow the tenor’s strong showings in Italian repertory.

In addition to Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti appeared in the 1965 season via performances of L’elisir d’amore with Harwood as Adina, Luciano Pavarotti as Nemorino, Spiro Malas as Dulcamara, Robert Allman as Belcore, and Doris Yanick as Giannetta. No opera company in the world could engage a cast of this quality for L’elisir d’amore in 2018. Pavarotti brought unforced charm to Nemorino, not least in this production, staged when he inhabited the part with physicality that matched his vocal suitability for the music. Malas and Allman are sonorously effective in their parts, but Harwood’s Adina is a pure delight. The voice glistens throughout the range, and the character springs to life with humor and good-natured feminine cunning. What a pity that Harwood never had an opportunity to record Adina under studio conditions!

The 1965 Melbourne production of Gounod’s Faust united Sutherland’s Marguerite with the native Mississippian Alexander’s Faust, a portrayal also heard at the Metropolitan Opera, including on the auspicious occasion of the joint house débuts of Montserrat Caballé and Sherrill Milnes, later in 1965; Richard Cross’s saturnine Méphistophélès; Opthof’s Valentin; the underrated Margreta Elkins’s Siébel; and Raymond Collier’s Wagner. Alexander lacked the easy resonance in the upper register that Corelli had in spades in Sutherland’s studio recording of Faust but otherwise sang with greater stylistic fluency and vocal pliancy than his Italian counterpart. The technical demands of Marguerite’s music—trills, long phrasing, and security on high—were easy going for Sutherland, and she here soars in passages in which some sopranos sink. In these selections, Sutherland’s characterization of Marguerite is generic, but the music is sung with supreme assurance.

Soprano DAME JOAN SUTHERLAND in a 2001 portrait by Richard Stone [Image © by the artist; used with permission]The essence of La Stupenda: soprano Dame Joan Sutherland in a 2001 portrait by Richard Stone
[Image © by Richard Stone; used with permission]

The Sutherland-Williamson Grand Opera Season’s 1965 Sydney production of Bellini’s La sonnambula was the setting for one of Sutherland’s early collaborations with Luciano Pavarotti, then not yet thirty years old. Discovered by Sutherland and her husband and frequent conductor Richard Bonynge two years earlier, the young tenor from Modena was the rare colleague who could match Sutherland in height, stage presence, and tonal opulence. His Elvino complemented an awe-inducing cast that also included Harwood as Lisa, Lauris Elms as Teresa, Malas as Rodolfo, and Tom McDonnell as Alessio. That singers of Harwood’s and Elms’s caliber assayed rôles like Lisa and Teresa is indicative of the prestige of the company assembled for the 1965 season. As heard on this disc, Malas is a grumbling, uncomplicated Count, Pavarotti’s Elvino a golden-voiced swain with a quick temper. Sutherland’s Amina is a sweet-souled, abidingly rustic creature. The marvel of Maria Callas’s depiction of Amina was the sophistication that she found in the part, allying coloratura display with emotional complexity. There is little depth beyond basic sincerity to Sutherland’s Amina, but the music is sung with unrivaled brilliance.

Pavarotti and Opthof also appeared as Germonts fils and père opposite Sutherland’s Violetta in the 1965 Melbourne La traviata, with a supporting cast that included Malas, Clifford Grant, Morag Beaton, Joseph Ward, Monica Sinclair, and Ronald Maconaghie. Like Amina and Elvino in La sonnambula, Violetta and Alfredo in La traviata are rôles that Sutherland and Pavarotti recorded together in studio, but the excerpts from this Melbourne production preserve their partnership at its freshest, their voices produced with almost giddy effortlessness. Sutherland was subjected to much negative criticism of her diction, but Pavarotti rarely received the praise that he deserved for his crystalline enunciation. In his singing on this disc, Alfredo’s love for Violetta is potently conveyed by both words and music, handled with equal aplomb. Sharing the stage with an artistic equal galvanizes Sutherland: audiences could rely upon her Violetta being impeccably sung, but Melburnians were treated to a characterization as satisfying dramatically as vocally.

Still staged infrequently at the time of the Melbourne performances memorialized by this Désirée release, Rossini’s Semiramide is perhaps the opera that benefited most from Sutherland’s espousal. The daunting music for the eponymous queen, composed to emphasize the still-strong elements of the deteriorating voice of Isabella Colbran, who married Rossini less than a year before Semiramide’s première, held few terrors for La Stupenda, who returned to the score in Sydney as late as 1983. Sutherland sang the title rôle in all of the Melbourne performances in 1965, backed by Joseph Rouleau’s Assur, Maconaghie’s Oroe, and Grant’s Ombra di Nino. Sinclair and Elms alternated as Arsace, and André Montal and Joseph Ward shared duties as Idreno. [Elms and Grant also reprised their Melbourne rôles in the 1983 Australian Opera production.] The age of Rossini tenors of the ilk of Juan Diego Flórez, Lawrence Brownlee, and Michele Angelini had not yet dawned, but it seems as though there were no embarrassments in Melbourne. Rouleau’s Assur is familiar from Sutherland’s studio recording of Semiramide and a recording of a Boston performance, and the vocal solidity heard in those performances was also at his command in Melbourne. Marilyn Horne may always be many listeners’ paragon for the performance of Arsace’s music, but Elms was an artist of comparable gifts and a worthy partner for Sutherland’s regal Semiramide. Whereas recent performances of Semiramide have inspired barrages of squabbling about the quality of the singing, it is difficult to imagine the singing in these selections provoking any reaction but universal acclamation.

The Sutherland-Williamson Grand Opera Season also gave audiences down under then-rare opportunities to hear Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, staged with Allman as Onegin, Joy Mammen as Tatyana, Alexander as Lensky, and Elms as Olga—a cast comparable to the best ensembles heard at the Bolshoi, Covent Garden, or the MET. In addition to singing Tatyana in Yevgeny Onegin, the Melbourne-born Mammen alternated with Sutherland and Harwood as Violetta and Adina. Her portrayal of Tatyana exhibits the technical stability that she continues to share with today’s singers. Heard both at Lincoln Center and in a MET tour performance in Boston, Alexander’s Lensky was an aptly poetic depiction, delivered in Australia with boyish vitality. Any Tchaikovsky aficionado might dream of hearing a singer of Elms’s calibre as Olga, and the same can be said of Allman, who brandished a voice that recalled Giuseppe Taddei’s instrument. In the character’s music on this disc, Allman’s Onegin is a virile but diffident man, evinced with powerful vocalism.

A beloved component of Dame Nellie Melba’s carefully-cultivated farewell performances was her singing of ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ the song by composer Sir Henry Bishop and librettist John Howard Payne that Donizetti famously—criminally, according to Bishop—used in the Anna Bolena mad scene. Sutherland often paid tribute to her predecessor by singing ‘Home, Sweet Home’ in her own recitals and concerts. A Melbourne performance of the song, recorded on 14 August 1965, makes a fitting finale to Désirée’s memento of the Sutherland-Williamson Grand Opera Season of 1965. In a sense, it is a memorial to a bygone era, as much an exercise in nostalgia as an example of the singer’s artistry. Perhaps there will always be operas and singers who perform them, but Dame Joan Sutherland was a gift to the art form that can never be replicated.

Soprano NANCE GRANT as Ortrud in Victoria State Opera's 1985 - 1986 production of Richard Wagner's LOHENGRIN [Photograph © by Victoria State Opera]Bringing Bayreuth to Melbourne: soprano Nance Grant as Ortrud in Victoria State Opera’s 1985 production of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin
[Photograph © by Victoria State Opera]

Anyone who has not heard the 1981 Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert performance of Die Walküre in which Nance Grant’s Sieglinde was rescued first from Donald Shanks’s Hunding by Robert Gard’s Siegmund and then from the political wrangling of Raymond Myers’s Wotan and Lauris Elms’s Fricka by Rita Hunter’s Brünnhilde is sadly ignorant of a performance that could teach many fellow Wagnerians much about the elusive art of singing Wagner’s music beautifully and characterfully. An exceptionally versatile singer whose repertoire extended from Elettra in Mozart’s Idomeneo, rè di Creta to rôles in contemporary works, Grant possessed a voice worthy of being heard in the world’s most exalted opera houses and concert halls. Rightly lauded in the land of her birth, Grant inexplicably does not share Sutherland’s familiarity abroad. Castles-Onion’s meticulous curation of Désirée’s wide-ranging survey of this marvelous soprano’s career is therefore particularly valuable.

At first glance, the most striking facet of Grant’s bejeweled artistry as this release celebrates it is the incredibly broad array of musical styles that populated her repertoire. From the Eighteenth Century, there are pieces from Gluck’s La corona and Orfeo ed Euridice and Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Die Zauberflöte, all capably if not always authoritatively sung. Moving into the Nineteenth Century, Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio is a rôle in which Grant excelled: the tempestuous ‘Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?’ might have been composed to suit her abilities, and the nobility of the character was ably served by the singer’s balance of gusto and grace. Finding music from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor among these treasures of Grant’s career is surprising, but the determination with which the soprano sings is customary.

A sample of Grant’s Marguerite in Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust returns to more predictable repertory. In the Verdi canon, excursions into the dramatic worlds of Simon Boccanegra and Aida disclose Grant’s affinity for interpreting the Italian composer’s heroines, but the excerpt from La traviata is revelatory. Similarly enlightening are numbers from Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s I quattro rusteghi, vastly different pieces that Grant sings with unwavering commitment to stylistic verisimilitude. Similarly unique is the selection from Rossini’s devout but overtly operatic Stabat Mater, sung with utter conviction and gleaming tone. Assessed in the context of these performances, Grant clearly was an artist for whom partial efforts were unacceptable. When she approached new music, her commitment was absolute, the results of which are audible in every selection on these discs.

Grant had a natural affinity for the operas of Richard Wagner, in which she encountered characters with whom she sympathized, musically and temperamentally. This Désirée release introduces the listener to her resigned but resilient Senta in Der fliegende Holländer, her radiant Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, and her resolute, resplendently maternal Sieglinde in Die Walküre, music from all three rôles voiced with assurance and spot-on dramatic instincts. Her portrayal of Ortrud in Lohengrin was one of the greatest successes of her career, and hearing her ethereally intone Elsa’s name suggests how entrancing she must have been in the rôle in the theatre. The Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier could hardly be more different, but Grant lends her pathos without ever being pathetic, achieving precisely the balance between heartbreak and self-awareness that enables the listener to feel the struggle between the character’s dignity and desperation.

Alongside such cerebral scenes, the once-popular number ‘My Hero’ from Oscar Straus’s Chocolate Soldier is unusual fare for this musical feast, but Grant’s singing makes it a delectable interlude. Desirable, too, is the music from Debussy’s L’enfant prodigue, sung with impressive comprehension of the composer’s singular musical language. The three minutes in which Grant is heard as Madame Lidoine in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites constitute a captivating character portrait in miniature. The unexaggerated expressivity of her operatic portrayals is convincingly adapted to the smaller dimensions of the Art Songs included here. The singer’s intelligence and interpretive insightfulness are ever apparent, but it is the voice that ultimately prompts contemplation of how knowledge of the work of such an artist can for so long have been confined to privileged connoisseurs. With this release, Grant débuts anew on the international stage, and how fantastic she sounds!

Baritone ROBERT ALLMAN as Iago in The Australian Opera's 1984 production of Giuseppe Verdi's OTELLO [Photograph © by Opera Australia]The complexities of malice: baritone Robert Allman as Iago in The Australian Opera’s 1984 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello
[Photograph © by Opera Australia]

The paucity of voices endowed by nature with the qualities necessary for success in singing Verdi repertory has been one of the most lamentable realities in opera in the first eighteen years of the Twenty-First Century. It has become clichéd to state that this or that singer of a previous generation, perhaps under-appreciated during his career or largely forgotten since his retirement, would be widely celebrated were he singing now, alongside today’s lackluster colleagues, but earnest Verdians long to hear baritones like Cesare Bardelli, Franco Bordoni, and Lorenzo Saccomani, singers whose fine performances of Verdi rôles were overshadowed by the work of better-known singers. The Désirée Records released devoted to the singing of Melbourne-born baritone Robert Allman (1927 – 2013) documents the enviable career of a true gentleman who was arguably Australia’s foremost Twentieth-Century Verdi baritone.

Allman sang the small rôle of Monsieur Javelinot in the 1958 British première of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, opposite fellow Australians Sutherland and Sylvia Fisher. By that time, his Covent Garden credentials included performances as Donner in Das Rheingold with Sutherland and Rosina Raisbeck, Monterone in Rigoletto with Tito Gobbi as the jester, the herald in Verdi’s Otello, and Escamillo in Carmen. Another of Allman’s London rôles was the Greek captain in Berlioz’s Les Troyens. More than a quarter-century later, he returned to Les Troyens in Melbourne, singing Chorèbe to the Cassandre of Margreta Elkins. Though sung in English, the excerpt from Allman’s performance included by Désirée imparts the distinctive Gallic ethos of the music. Further evincing the baritone’s incredible stylistic flexibility, very early recordings of music from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, complemented by endearing mementos from Allman’s 1997 farewell gala and disarmingly sincere performances of Katie Moss’s ‘The Floral Dance’ and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s ‘The Lost Chord,’ deepen awareness of the subtleties of the singer’s artistry.

Selections from Der fliegende Holländer, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Götterdämmerung, and Parsifal divulge that Allman was no less enthralling in Wagner rôles than in Verdi parts. His Holländer and Amfortas are tormented by weariness of body and psyche, his Gunther exudes the uncertainty of a powerful man whose control of his empire is crumbling, and his enigmatic Telramund and reverent Wolfram reaffirm that, when sung with uncompromising musicality and proper technique, there is considerably more beauty in Wagner’s music than many performances suggest. Allman’s preeminence in German repertory also encompassed Richard Strauss’s Salome and Elektra, and, as heard in the excerpts tendered by Désirée, his Jochanaan and Orest would be boons to any production of these operas, in any language. In all of the music on these discs, Allman phrases with a poet’s attention to the sounds and meanings of words. Nothing is over-accentuated, but nothing is ignored.

Schaunard in Puccini’s La bohème was another rôle for which Allman was applauded at Covent Garden, where his Musetta was fellow Victorian Marie Collier. Via this release, his interpretations of Scarpia in Tosca, Michele in Il tabarro, and Gianni Schicchi can be appraised. The menace that a successful Scarpia must exert is unmistakable in Allman’s depiction, but there are also indications of a gnawing vulnerability: this is a Scarpia whose cruelty emerges from an unfillable void. Similarly, a vein of humanity enriches the blood of Allman’s Michele, who proves that the most dangerous hatred is born only of the most intense love. Allman was perhaps not the most natural comedian, and his is an uncaricatured Gianni Schicchi—and is all the better for it. Prospective interpreters of the part could learn from Allman’s example that comedy and stupidity are neither identical nor interchangeable commodities. A related lesson can be gleaned from the baritone’s singing in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. His Tonio commits monstrosities but is not the snarling, grunting monster portrayed by many singers. His villainy is no less triggered by unrequited love than is Canio’s violence. Not even legendary recordings by Carlo Galeffi, Gino Bechi, and Giuseppe Taddei are superior to Allman’s account of ‘Nemico della patria’ from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, for which his emulsion of passion, patrician sensibilities, and resonant, beautiful tone was ideal.

As an exponent of Verdi’s baritone rôles, Allman’s only Australian rivals were Raymond Myers and John Shaw, both gifted singers who shared their countryman’s suitability for this repertory. Myers and Shaw often portrayed these characters as tough, irascible scions of their social strata, but Allman projected greater individuality, emphasizing personal rather than universal emotions. The drama that he brings to the excerpt from I masnadieri is siphoned from the score, the structure of the music used as a template for creating vocal imagery. There is venom in Allman’s Macbeth, but his fangs, sharpened by his wife’s deadly ambition, are bared with reluctance. His Rigoletto is akin to Giuseppe de Luca’s admired portrayal, defined as much by finesse as by raw force: the man’s shame, boundless love, and fury burst from only a few minutes of music. The decorum of both the Conte di Luna in Il trovatore and Giorgio Germont in La traviata is communicated in singing of consummate musicality and dramatic integrity. In Allman’s performances, the fathers in Simon Boccanegra and Aida, the former conciliatory and the latter vengeful, share a core of bronzed vocalism that makes Simone’s probity profoundly moving and Amonasro’s rage chilling. Allman’s Iago in Otello is grippingly mercurial: his nefarious plans come to fruition with the added peril of being handsomely sung.

As deserving of praise as the breadth of Allman’s repertory is the fact that the consistency of his singing throughout the four decades explored by this Désirée release is inviolable. The voice aged, of course, and the technique metamorphosed accordingly, but the essence of his artistry was unchanging. Perhaps Allman’s most important legacy to subsequent generations of singers is his embodiment, of which this Désirée release is a testament, of the premise that the health of a voice is maintained by singing only what and how it is meant to sing.

Soprano JUNE BRONHILL (center) in the title rôle of Victoria State Opera's 1976 production of Gaetano Donizetti's MARIA STUARDA [Photograph © by Victoria State Opera]Queen of the stage: soprano June Bronhill (center) in the title rôle of Victoria State Opera’s 1976 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda
[Photograph © by Victoria State Opera]

To the company of a trio of Joans—Hammond, Sutherland, and Carden—in the ranks of Australia’s foremost interpreters of bel canto repertory must be added a single June: the charismatic soprano June Bronhill (1929 – 2005). Now remembered by many music lovers principally for her sparkling portrayals of operetta heroines, not least in productions and recordings by London’s Sadler’s Wells, her deft characterizations of leading ladies of serious opera, epitomized by her singing of the title rôle in Victoria State Opera’s 1976 production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, in which she was antagonized by Nance Grant’s Elizabeth I, are not recalled with the respect that they deserve. For this sin of omission, Désirée’s release endeavors to make amends by spotlighting performances of music important to Bronhill’s artistic development but overlooked in most remembrances of her work.

Like many Australian artists of her generation, some of Bronhill’s earliest experiences in the often harrowingly combative world of professional Classical Music—and some of listeners’ earliest experiences of her singing—resulted from her participation in Mobil Quest, one of the world’s first widely-disseminated competitions for Classical singers. Bronhill was a finalist in the 1951 edition of Mobil Quest, in which the top prize was won by another coloratura soprano, Margaret Nisbett. This and other competition successes put her on the path to stardom in and beyond Australia, facilitating her studies and early appearances in the UK.

The variety of music chosen by Castles-Onion to retrace the progress of her career is mesmerizing. From early Mobil Quest appearances to comic parts and triumphs in rôles from the standard repertory, the musical odyssey on these discs leads to destinations as relatively remote as Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, for the heroine in which Bronhill’s voice might have been specially tailored. Considering her comfort with Eighteenth-Century vocal writing, it is regrettable that, subject to the availability of archival recordings, Mozart figures in this study of Bronhill solely in music from Die Entführung aus dem Serail, in which she notably sang Blonde to Joan Carden’s Konstanze in 1977. Almost any of the pre-da Ponte operas might have been revived for her, and she could have been a near-perfect Ilia when Sutherland sang Elettra in Idomeneo in Sydney in 1979. [Further evidence of her Mozartean credentials is the warm reception her singing in Le nozze di Figaro at Sadler’s Wells garnered from the British press.]

Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale was another part for which Bronhill’s gifts qualified her, and the music presented by Désirée is sung with the timing of a conscientious comic actress. Her timbre and vocal amplitude reminiscent of Mercedes Capsir, Bronhill is a light, bright-toned Lucia di Lammermoor, a rare exemplar of the girlish guilelessness that Miss Lucy should manifest. The Melbourne Maria Stuarda was a pinnacle in Bronhill’s singing of serious rôles, and the excerpts on this release permit the listener to make the acquaintance of the soprano’s delicate but spirited Mary Stuart, little like contemporaneous portrayals by Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé but a riveting realization of Donizetti’s—and, in its verbal boldness, Schiller’s—heroine.

Though very different musically and dramatically, Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, Lady Harriet in Flotow’s Martha, and Massenet’s Manon were parts in which Bronhill’s vocal splendor shone, and the music from these scores that she sings on this release opens a portal into a niche in her repertory that few of her admirers outside of England and Australia witnessed. The luminosity of the soprano’s singing of pieces for Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and Verdi’s Gilda, Violetta, and Oscar in Un ballo in maschera is expected, but the adroitness with which she made music from Puccini’s La bohème and La rondine work on her own terms dazzles. Equally astounding are her performances of selections from Menotti’s The Telephone and The Saint of Bleecker Street: here, too, she stakes her own unique claim to the music. Poaching ‘Bess, you is my woman now’ from Porgy and Bess is a trick that she brought off with aplomb, sounding wholly in her element in Gershwin’s jazz-influenced idiom. Another musical theatre piece, Ron Grainer’s and Ronald Millar’s Robert and Elizabeth, occupied a prominent place in Bronhill’s repertory, and gratitude is owed to Désirée Records for championing music from Robert and Elizabeth and numbers from Romberg’s The New Moon and Ivor Novello’s King’s Rhapsody, all sung with unflappable glamour.

Eurydice and Gabrielle in Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers and La vie parisienne were rôles in which Bronhill was particularly admired, and her performances of music from these scores are the foundation of Désirée Records’ audit of her career. There is abundant humor in her singing of Offenbach’s frothy melodies, but what lingers in the memory is the generosity of spirit that permeates her characterizations. This is also true of her traversals of music from the Gilbert and Sullivan gems Iolanthe, HMS Pinafore, and The Mikado. Few singers of any nationality have brought greater enchantment to Iolanthe’s Phyllis than Bronhill conjures on this disc. Likewise, her singing of pieces from Lehár’s Merry Widow and Das Land des Lächelns is bewitching, proving that these scores are as divertingly picturesque when staged by the Georges and the Thames as when played along the banks of the Danube. This serves as a germane metaphor for the careers of all of the Australian artists heard on Désirée Records’ releases, subsequent titles having given more singers the attention they deserve: products of one of earth’s most dynamic nations, the allure of these voices is universal.

Widely known on other continents only in the contexts of a handful of world-famous exports, the musical heritage of Australia is as rich and varied as the country’s geography. Also like the continent’s sparsely-populated interior, where hidden wonders await adventurous visitors like the mammoth crocodiles that lurk in the nation’s waterways, Australia’s musical history contains many delicacies perhaps tasted but never fully savored by international audiences. Désirée Records’ ongoing dedication to fondly and analytically honoring and sharing these extraordinary singers’ lives and careers indeed advances Australia fair.