09 October 2020

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: La Stupenda, per sempre - remembering DAME JOAN SUTHERLAND, 1926 - 2010

LA STUPENDA, PER SEMPRE: Australian soprano DAME JOAN SUTHERLAND (1926 - 2010) in the title rôle of Gaetano Donizetti's LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at The Metropolitan Opera, 1961 [Photograph by Louis Mélançon; © by The Metropolitan Opera]Alfin son tua: Australian soprano Dame Joan Sutherland (1926 – 2010) in the title rôle of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at The Metropolitan Opera, 1961
[Photograph by Louis Mélançon, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

Virtually every parent, educator, and caregiver would likely agree that, in certain situations, there is no more fearsome a word in the English language than Why. A child’s inquisitive ‘Why?’ can be as unnerving as the most intimidating interrogation, those three letters often conveying not only infinite curiosity but implicit challenges to conventional knowledge and perspectives. Scarcely less flustering in the context of interviews with artists are ubiquitous explorations of motivations: beyond the obvious impetus of natural ability, why was pursuing a career in the Arts deemed to be the correct path? Like a child’s deceptively simple query, however, such questions often impart a more consequential probe. Why do the Arts matter?

Prevalent in singers’ reflections on their formative experiences are mentions of fellow singers by whose work they were influenced and inspired. As a dedicated but little-talented student of piano, violin, and voice who for a brief time pondered seeking a career in opera, there are many musicians whose artistry contributed to my passion for the Performing Arts. An aspiring singer might be expected to cite as his foremost operatic idols exponents of his own Fach, but no singer spurred my budding enthusiasm for opera more than Australian soprano Dame Joan Sutherland.

By the time that I started my vocal studies, Sutherland’s final performance was six years in the past, but her 1962 studio recording of Verdi’s La traviata was one of the first opera recordings that I owned and the first to confirm to me that opera is not only an exhilarating, engaging entertainment but also an art form that matters so much that I contemplated dedicating my life to advancing it. I never had the privilege of hearing Sutherland’s voice ‘live,’ but, in the years that followed my first hearing of her recorded portrayal of Violetta Valéry, I have heard and studied recordings of dozens of her performances.

A stage persona is but one facet of an artist’s personality, but the immutable sincerity of her interpretations enables one to ‘meet’ both Dame Joan Sutherland the diva and Joan the affable colleague and humble servant of music. For some listeners, the simplicity of her portrayals demonstrates a frustrating lack of imagination: for this listener, the meticulous preparedness of her singing exhibits commitments to craft and audiences that more performers should emulate. Knowing her through the characters she portrayed and the manner in which she brought them to life, Sutherland’s passing a decade ago, on 10 October 2010, was for me the loss of a beloved friend.

Born in Sydney on 7 November 1926, Sutherland began her vocal studies under the tutelage of her mother, a fine mezzo-soprano. As she entered adulthood, a scholarship enabled her to further her studies with the renowned pedagogues Aida and John Dickens, who quickly deemed that their gifted pupil was not a mezzo-soprano but a dramatic soprano destined for success in Wagner repertoire. It was with a focus on training her voice to assume the mantle of Dame Eva Turner and Kirsten Flagstad that Sutherland arrived in London to study at the Royal College of Music. Her début at London’s Royal Opera was as the Erste Dame in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte on 28 October 1952. Two months later, her Verdian credentials were established with her portrayal of Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, the first portrait in a gallery gradually enlarged by performances of Verdi’s heroines ranging from Amalia in I masnadieri to Desdemona in Otello.

It is rightly her extraordinary vocal virtuosity that is most celebrated, but versatility was also a remarkable component of Sutherland’s career—and of my appreciation for her. She introduced herself to the discerning Viennese as Donna Anna in Josef Witt’s Wiener Staatsoper production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni on 14 September 1959, returning two months later as Verdi’s Desdemona. It was her singing of the title rôle in Georg Friedrich Händel’s Alcina, not Violetta or Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, that prompted the Venetians to grant her the epithet La Stupenda, and it was also as Alcina that she made her USA début in Dallas.

Sutherland’s triumphant Metropolitan Opera début on 26 November 1961, was as Lucia, but, in addition to an array of bel canto parts, she also offered MET audiences depictions of the heroines in Offenbach Les contes d Hoffmann and Massenet’s Esclarmonde, the latter rôle, also performed in San Francisco and London, having been cited by Sutherland as the achievement of which she was most proud. Her Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots dazzled the Milanese and remained a credible characterization when the part was chosen for her farewell to the stage in Sydney in 1990.

Vancouver hosted Sutherland’s first  portrayals of Bellini’s Norma and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, and Seattle was charmed by her singing of Delibes’s Lakmé. Her Sitâ in Massenet’s Le roi de Lahore won praise in Vancouver and San Francisco. In London, her successes in Italian opera were supplemented by acclaimed portrayals of Lady Penelope Rich in Britten’s Gloriana, Jenifer in the world première of Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage, and Madame Lidoine in the British première of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, a rôle that she movingly reprised in Sydney in 1984. Late in her career, the comedic timing evident in her spirited Marie in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment found a delightful new outlet in Rosalinde in Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus. Applauded in Barcelona, Boston, Buenos Aires, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, New Orleans, Palermo, Paris, Philadelphia, Tokyo, and Toronto, Sutherland traversed the globe, amassing a repertoire encompassing music from three centuries.

LA STUPENDA, PER SEMPRE: Australian soprano DAME JOAN SUTHERLAND (1926 - 2010) as Amina (right) and tenor NICOLAI GEDDA (1925 - 2017) as Elvino (left) in Vincenzo Bellini's LA SONNAMBULA at The Metropolitan Opera, 1963 [Photograph by Louis Mélançon, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Sempre uniti in una speme: Australian soprano Dame Joan Sutherland (1926 – 2010) as Amina (right) and tenor Nicolai Gedda (1925 – 2017) as Elvino (left) in Vincenzo Bellini’s La sonnambula at The Metropolitan Opera, 1963
[Photograph by Louis Mélançon, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

In the company of both devotees and detractors, discussions of singers’ most memorable portrayals are as safe to navigate as active minefields. Though it is universally acknowledged that Sutherland met the musical demands of three of opera’s most daunting rôles—Norma, Lucia, and Violetta—with uncommon vocal faculty, her portrayals are frequently compared unfavorably with those of other singers, most notably Maria Callas and Renata Scotto. That Sutherland wielded neither Callas’s profound sense of character development nor Scotto’s poetic handling of text is undeniable, but hearing the Australian soprano’s colossal voice accurately execute difficult fiorature and confidently ascend above the stave provides visceral thrills unique to Sutherland.

However their dramatic merits contrast with other singers’ performances, Sutherland’s unfailing musicality lends her portrayals of Lucia, Norma, and Violetta compelling presence, her trust in the music allowing the listener to enjoy these rôles according to composers’ intentions. Moreover, it should be noted when assessing her musicality that, her formidable bravura capabilities and the ornamental excesses encouraged by her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge, in some of the studio recordings notwithstanding, Sutherland exercised a laudable degree of fidelity to composers’ scores. Recordings of her live performances of Händel’s Alcina, Cleopatra, and Rodelinda are especially revelatory: here, her embellishments are often far more tasteful than those ventured by some of today’s ostensibly more-historically-informed singers. In both her core repertoire and the rarities that she revived, Sutherland complemented fellow artists’ more theatrical characterizations with performances distinguished by uncompromising musical values.

For this listener, the best of Sutherland’s artistry can be found in her performances of Mozart’s Idomeneo, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena, and Verdi’s Rigoletto. Her appearances as Elettra in Australian Opera’s July 1979 production of Idomeneo surprised even some of her most ardent admirers, not least because the rôle is not as prominent as many of the parts that she assayed, but the character’s wounded pride and vengeful exasperation, culminating in an electrifying account of ‘D’Oreste, d’Ajace,’ resolved with a gigantic interpolated top C, roused unexpected dramatic vitality. The majesty of her depictions of the wronged Mary Stuart and Anne Boleyn impresses, but she also brought great intimacy to her recreations of these historical figures’ plights, achieving movingly tragic grandeur in Maria Stuarda’s confession scene.

Sutherland’s voice was larger than that of almost any other Gilda heard in the past century, but even at the end of her career—she last sang the rôle in a complete Rigoletto in Sydney in 1986, at the age of fifty-nine—she possessed the requisite limpidity of tone for ‘Caro nome,’ ‘Tutte le feste al tempio,’ and the quartet. Discreet downward transpositions were employed in some of her rôles as the voice matured, a reality of aging that Sutherland never denied. Nevertheless, the voice’s greatest assets—the immediately-recognizable timbre, the reserves of power, and the sensational trill—were as apparent in her 1990 Sydney Marguerite de Valois as in her 1959 Covent Garden Lucia.

Ten years after her passing and thirty years after her final performance, voice lovers now must rely upon recordings to appraise Sutherland’s artistry. Despite her long and fruitful association with the label, it can be argued that Decca’s engineers never perfected the art of recording Sutherland with an acoustical perspective that permits full appreciation of the voice’s amplitude and technical consistency. Though mostly free from distortion and peaking, especially in remastered editions, early recordings often deprived Sutherland’s timbre of clarity and lessened the impact of notes above top A.

The close microphone placement of later recordings accentuated a loosening of vibrato and increased laboriousness of vocal production that in-house recordings confirm to have been markedly less apparent in theater acoustics. Amongst Sutherland’s many complete opera recordings for Decca, perhaps only the controversial Turandot and Il trovatore opposite Luciano Pavarotti, in both instances singing rôles in which he was capable but hardly ideal, offer today’s listeners a sonic representation of the voice that can be better experienced on non-commercial recordings.

Sutherland was understandably revered by many of her operatically-inclined Australian countrymen, and, even when her international career was largely centered in Europe and the Americas, her native Sydney remained her artistic home. Consequently, she sang much of her repertoire in Australia, including rôles like Mozart’s Elettra and Puccini’s Suor Angelica that she did not perform elsewhere. One of the finest sources for skillfully-remastered, attractively-packaged recordings of some of Sutherland’s most memorable performances, particularly those from Sydney, is Western Australia-based retailer Celestial Audio.

Of the Sutherland titles available from Celestial Audio, two that I find indispensable are in-house recordings of a May 1973 Covent Garden Lucia di Lammermoor (catalogue number CA1911) and a 1977 Australian Opera Suor Angelica (catalogue number CA1061). As in the second Decca studio recording, Sutherland’s Edgardo in the Covent Garden Lucia is Pavarotti, on superb form in one of his best rôles, but the other parts are taken by Royal Opera stalwarts who did not record these rôles commercially: Louis Quilico as Enrico, Gwynne Howell as Raimondo, Kenneth Collins as Arturo, and Dame Heather Begg as Alisa. Sutherland’s Zia principessa in the Decca Suor Angelica was Christa Ludwig, vocally stunning but unidiomatic. In Sydney, the pitiless aunt was sung by Australian mezzo-soprano Rosina Raisbeck, a fervent singing actress whose intensity heightened the pathos of Sutherland’s delicate but determined Angelica.

LA STUPENDA, PER SEMPRE: Australian soprano DAME JOAN SUTHERLAND (1926 - 2010) as Leonora (right) and tenor LUCIANO PAVAROTTI (1935 - 2007) as Manrico (left) in Giuseppe Verdi's IL TROVATORE at The Metropolitan Opera, 1987 [Photograph by Winnie Klotz, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Gioie di casto amor: Australian soprano Dame Joan Sutherland (1926 – 2010) as Leonora (right) and tenor Luciano Pavarotti (1935 – 2007) as Manrico (left) in Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore at The Metropolitan Opera, 1987
[Photograph by Winnie Klotz, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

Sutherland was indisputably an important singer, but no less significant to her legacy is the warmth and cordiality of her interactions with colleagues. She first sang Leonora in Verdi’s Il trovatore in a staging by Wolfram Skalicki and Davis L. West at San Francisco Opera in September 1976. One of her colleagues in that production, celebrated American dramatic soprano Linda Roark-Strummer, vividly recalls the experience of partnering Sutherland in that still-discussed Trovatore. ‘Ah, dear Joan! Of course, I didn’t call her Joan,’ Roark-Strummer shared. ‘I was just starting out and didn’t feel like I had the right to address her by anything other than Ms. Sutherland. I had been with Western Opera Theater [for a year] when I was invited, by Kurt Herbert Adler, to sing Inez in Trovatore with Dame Joan, Pavarotti, [Elena] Obraztsova, [and Ingvar] Wixel, with Bonynge conducting. It was exciting to be working with such fabulous, not to mention famous, singers, just out of the starting gate.’

A young artist’s anxiety at sharing the stage with a singer of Sutherland’s renown is unfathomable. ‘Yeah, I was nervous,’ Roark-Strummer conceded, but her apprehension was short-lived. ‘It didn’t take me long to get comfortable,’ she continued. ‘Dame Joan may have been put on a pedestal by the world, but she was a real person; I mean, a mensch! When she wasn’t on stage, she would sit and do needlepoint. At one of the early stage rehearsals [for Il trovatore], we were sitting on the steps that went up the back of the set, waiting for our entrance; in the second act, I think. She was working on her needlepoint and explaining to me that she was making chair seat covers for Richard [Bonynge]’s “gaming room.” I remember wondering if I would ever have a gaming room, living, as I was at the time, in a two-room apartment!’ This unpretentious domesticity was an integral aspect of Sutherland’s temperament, but her calm demeanor concealed a ribald sense of humor.

‘The funniest moment [of the Trovatore production] came during one of the performances,’ Roark-Strummer confided. ‘The stage set was on a huge rake. The floor on the rake was made up to look like flagstones, and the fronts of the “stones” were made out of foam rubber—mostly, I think, to keep us from falling off the stage! They were interesting to walk on. One rather bounced across the stage. Joan had brought her own costume, which was beautiful, pale blue, with big puffy sleeves and miles of full skirts and a low-cut neckline. And she looked fabulous in it! Judging from the costume they gave me, I don’t think her dress was completely correct to period.’ The contrast with her own costume was glaring, Roark-Strummer recalled. ‘They put me in a forest-green dress that was your basic A-line number with a small train and, over that, a somewhat lighter-colored, open-tunic-type of thing with gold trim. At the time, I was 5’10” tall and weighed 120 pounds. Someone remarked at the time that, on stage, we looked like Mutt and Jeff. The light blue of her dress made her look bigger than life—she was the leading lady, after all! The darkness of mine and the gold trim made me look even thinner than I was. I have a cherished picture of us.’

Roark-Strummer discovered that, beyond the glamorous façade, not even the illustrious then-not-yet-Dame Joan Sutherland was infallible. ‘The aria was “Tacea la notte placida”—and those were the last words any of us understood. Anything after that was anybody’s guess,’ she laughed. ‘The prompter, Phillip Eisenberg, was trying to get [Joan] back on track, to the point [that] I thought he would crawl right out of the box. I was trying to remember what I was supposed to be reacting to but not having much luck. Note to self: Lesson number one—Learn everybody’s part! [I was] worried that Eisenberg was going to have a heart attack. We finished—finally!—and headed off stage, bouncing all the way, and [Joan] looked at me and said, “Oh! I fucked that up, didn’t I?” I thought I wasn’t going to make it off stage and back to my dressing room without loudly laughing myself to death!’

An indirect reunion thirteen years after the San Francisco Trovatore reinforced Roark-Strummer’s fond memories of Sutherland. ‘I never expected Dame Joan to remember me, and I never saw her again after that [Trovatore], but my husband worked with her in Dallas when she was doing her farewell performance in the United States. During a lull sometime in a rehearsal, he approached her and mentioned that she had worked with his wife during her first Trovatore in San Francisco. He told her that I was her Inez. Without hesitation, her face lit up, and she said in her wonderful Aussie accent, “Oh! Linda Long Legs!” They both had a good laugh.’

For Roark-Strummer’s husband, esteemed bass-baritone Peter Strummer, portraying Baron Zeta in the 1989 Dallas production of Franz Lehár’s Die Lustige Witwe with which Sutherland bade farewell to performing in the USA was an unforgettable joy. ‘[We had] a wonderful rehearsal period and performances in Dallas,’ Strummer intimated, ‘and it was fascinating to watch and hear [Sutherland] sing Hanna Glawari because I couldn’t follow Bonynge to save my soul. It was like stirring soup!’ Strummer eventually recognized that, during the course of the spouses’ long collaboration, Sutherland had cultivated unique ways of reacting to Bonynge’s conducting. ‘I wondered how she was able to do it. After a while, I realized she never looked at him!’ Strummer mused.

In the final year of her career, Sutherland remained a conscientious artist, still attentive to making each performance a momentous occasion for the audience, Strummer opined, but she never took herself too seriously. ‘We had a great time, and she was constantly cracking up at my faux Russian accent.’ Not even by the time of her final production in the USA had singing become tedious for Sutherland. ‘One day, we were doing a musical rehearsal, and Dame Joan was sitting behind us. Every once in a while, Ricky [Bonynge] would stop and mention to her that some phrase was one he wanted her to insert into the Fledermaus in her final performance at Covent Garden. He said it several times to her, and finally she leaned forward to me and, with a low, mocking voice, said, “That’s what he thinks! What he doesn’t know is that I am not going to do it at all!”’

When the new production of Il trovatore by Fabrizio Melano in which Sutherland sang her final opera performances at the Metropolitan Opera opened in November 1987, critic Martin Mayer wrote in his review for Opera, ‘Everyone I know who knows her likes Dame Joan; one of her friends must tell her that the time comes when an artist whose stock-in-trade has been voice rather than musicianship or expression or dramatic force must hang it up.’ The prevailing tone of his uniformly negative review is decidedly undiplomatic, but Mayer’s point was and will always be valid. Artists’ reputations are easily tarnished by careers that carry on beyond voices’ abilities to master the music they are charged with singing.

I did not hear the specific performance that spawned Mayer’s withering estimation, but I know and love the broadcast of 19 December 1987, the performance in which Sutherland made her penultimate appearance at the MET. The assured coloratura, the impeccable trills, the grand line, and the written top D in ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee,’ omitted by much younger singers, were astonishingly intact. In truth, such enduring technical prowess would be astonishing in most singers, but it was the hallmark of Dame Joan Sutherland’s career. Have not the years since La Stupenda’s retirement taught us that inviolable vocal reliability is itself a dramatic force?