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Dame Joan Sutherland remembered

14 October 2010, London, UK

Dame Joan Sutherland in 1975
Dame Joan Sutherland in 1975(Photo: Allan Warren)

Special report by Paul Westcott

To explain why Joan Sutherland has been described as “The Voice of the Century” is not as easy as it sounds.  Undoubtedly she had a fabulous technique and an intrinsically beautiful voice, but there was so much more to her artistry than that. Her music-making was imbued with that ‘star’ quality which very few possess.  Possibly because, in her person and in her application to making the most of her gifts, she was utterly un-Diva like. 

In her most famous role, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Sutherland made the somewhat far-fetched character of Lucia totally believable. The celebrated ‘Mad Scene’ of that opera was chilling, thrilling, and ultimately intensely moving.

One was instinctively on ‘her’ side in all of Sutherland’s portrayals, from her fizzing Marie in La Fille du regiment (revealing her tremendous comic flair) to the less sympathetic characters of Turandot and Lucrezia Borgia, the latter of which features a final dazzling aria where again she managed both to move and thrill in equal measure.
Her 1970s recording of Maria Stuarda gives lie to the myth that Sutherland’s diction was poor. Here, she positively spits out her words, and when she flings the insult “vil bastarda”, the intensity of the drama is electrifying.

With her husband, Richard Bonynge, Sutherland was very generous to her colleagues, instinctively recognising other great talents: early in her career she performed with Marilyn Horne, the start of a long collaboration and friendship, whilst a certain young singer, Luciano Pavarotti, was taken under the wing of Joan and Richard, performing with them on tours and in opera houses. But there were many other wonderful artists too, whose delight in collaborating with Joan produced a string of classic Decca recordings of Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini and many works from the French repertoire, notably Massenet and a practically definitive version of Les Contes d'Hoffmann

Sutherland’s recital discs – ‘The Art of the Prima Donna’, ‘The Age of Bel Canto’ and ‘Romantic French Arias’ – are all superb examples of her artistry but one only has to listen to the finale of her Decca recordings of I Puritani to understand why she really was “The Voice of the Century”. 

Sutherland was a great artist and a great person and is irreplaceable.

Paul Westcott is the official biographer of Australian conductor and pianist, Richard Bonynge, who married Dame Joan Sutherland in 1954 and played a crucial role in supporting her rise to superstardom.


Britten's The Turn of the Screw at Opera North

13 October 2010, Leeds, UK

Elizabeth Atherton as the Governess (left) and James Micklethwaite as Miles (right)
Elizabeth Atherton as the Governess (left) and James Micklethwaite as Miles (right)(Photo: Bill Cooper)

Review by Michael White

The task for a stage director of The Turn of the Screw is not to say too much, beyond establishing an unspecific sense of evil.

Should the director decide that in fact nothing has happened, and it's all the hyperactive fantasy of a neurotic Governess, we don't want to know that either - otherwise the tensions in the piece evaporate.
A problem with the new Turn of the Screw at Opera North was that, having relegated everything to the Governess's mind, the director Alessandro Talevi couldn't resist the temptation to spell it out for us.
Act I had some seriously misjudged ideas, but Act II was clearer, with some truly scary moments; and the last ten minutes were electrifying. An outstanding cast was led by Elizabeth Atherton as a forceful and securely sung Governess. Benjamin Hulett made an eloquent impression as Quince. Fflur Wyn, a petite adult, passed convincingly as the child Flora. And there was a wonderfully fleshed out, full-blooded Miles from James Micklethwaite, a local schoolboy with just the kind of ripely unself-conscious sound and manner Britten wanted.

The Turn of the Screw runs at Leeds’ Grand Theatre until 21 October, followed by performances in Salford Quays (The Lowry), Newcastle (Theatre Royal) and Nottingham (Theatre Royal).


World Premiere – ETO presents Alexander Goehr’s Promised End

12 October 2010, London, UK

Roderick Earle (Lear)
Roderick Earle (Lear)(Photo: English Touring Opera)

Opera Now correspondent, Robert Thicknesse, reports:

Promised End, the title of English Touring Opera’s  first ever commission, comes from the last scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the inspiration for this new opera by the composer-scholar Alexander Goehr.
There is no objective reason why a Lear opera shouldn’t work. Goehr’s attempt at least limits itself to one aspect of the play, concentrating on the self-destruction of two foolish old men, Lear and Gloucester. The late scholar, Sir Frank Kermode, helped Goehr to select 24 scenes and edit the text. The result is a kind of fast-forward palimpsest of the play, familiar lines flashing by and a great deal of knowledge taken for granted. ETO’s boss James Conway, who directs this production, was at pains to distance opera from play – but without considerable knowledge of the latter this would be a puzzling show indeed.
As it is, it’s just boring. Goehr has gone ritualistic, which is not in itself a bad idea when you need to produce a miniature version. But his Noh-influenced product is so telegraphic, so depersonalised, there is nothing human in it to attach your brain or heart to; neither is there any noticeable attempt to justify setting the play to music in the first place.
Two characters on stage come closest to some sort of life, Lina Markeby’s doubled Cordelia and Fool, and Nicholas Garrett as that caricature of evil, Edmund; the first because her music is individualised, a sort of Weimar version of Olde-Englysshe lute songs; the second because he delivers his words with a spitting relish that makes him sound like the only person on stage performing in his native language. Roderick Earle is an unengaging Lear but it’s not his fault particularly – the character is simply written without much affection. And neither is Gloucester, sung by Nigel Robson.
The word-setting itself is pretty dire, a lesson in how to denature poetry. The text is, however, set against a strangely attractive score, spikily lyrical but diffuse and unimaginatively scored: blocks of wind or strings, a clarinet and violin in wandering counterpoint, occasionally something more interesting concocted by chamber organ and guitar. The greatest pleasure in the show is listening to this series of what Goehr calls ‘preludes’, though it is very much faute de mieux. A chorus – Greece through the eyes of Brecht – occasionally comments in pleasantly clustered chords.
Conway does what he can, with a simple, stylised, elegant and atmospheric staging that owes something to Noh and something to Samuel Beckett. What he can’t hide is the incredibly dated nature of this work – and this is the final impression: a composer who, unlike his contemporaries Davies and Birtwistle, never grew out of the Seventies, cloistered himself in Cambridge and finally produced what will never amount to more than a footnote to his career.


Soprano Dame Joan Sutherland dies, aged 83

12 October 2010, London, UK

Dame Joan Sutherland in 1975
Dame Joan Sutherland in 1975(Photo: Allan Warren)

Dame Joan Sutherland has died at her home in Switzerland, aged 83. She had been in poor health since suffering a fall last year.

Dubbed ‘La Stupenda’ as early in her career as 1960, the Australian-born Sutherland was one of the finest coloratura sopranos of the 20th Century, celebrated in particular for her bel canto roles.

Her international career began at Covent Garden in 1952, when she debuted as First Lady in Die Zauberflöte, but it was her 1959 appearance in the title role of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor that catapulted Sutherland into the firmament of international opera stars. She went on to sing this role 233 times during her career.

Luciano Pavarotti once described Sutherland as having "the voice of the century".

She was admired in equal measure for her personality, never letting her enormous success go to her head. Despite being ranked as “one of the first ladies of international opera, she never behaved like a prima donna,” says Alan Blyth in his obituary of Sutherland for The Guardian. “Throughout her career, she would be found joking and laughing uproariously in her dressing-room only minutes after giving an overwhelming performance of some tragic operatic heroine.”

Paying tribute to Sutherland in an official statement released yesterday by the Royal Opera House, Music Director Antonio Pappano said “[Joan] actually was 'Stupenda'.  A lovely human being who could sing anybody off the stage.  And I mean anybody.  What she did for bel canto music and its technique cannot be underestimated.  We have lost one of the true greats.”

Sutherland’s discography includes 40 recordings of 33 different operas and she was awarded a Grammy in 1961 for best classical performer of the year.

She was appointed CBE in 1961, DBE in 1979, and a member of the Order of Merit in 1991.

Her retirement from the stage in 1990 was marked by a farewell performance at Covent Garden alongside Luciano Pavarotti and Marilyn Horne.

The Met’s new Ring Cycle - Das Rheingold

9 October 2010, New York, US

Bryn Terfel (Wotan)
Bryn Terfel (Wotan)(Brigitte Lacombe / Metropolitan Opera)

Opera Now correspondent, Robert Levine, reports from New York:

Fears ran high that the Met might be about to subject its audience to a new production of the Ring that dealt in abstruse and abstract concepts, in apposition to the very naturalistic, beloved Otto Schenk Ring that it replaces.

Those worries seemed to be over: the new Das Rheingold is here and it is neither too edgy nor filled with subtext. Robert Lepage’s production is spectacular and gripping. An argument could be made that the individual characters’ psyches have not been probed with the same attention with which the set and effects have been conceived, but this is something one tends to notice after the show is over.

Bryn Terfel’s Wotan is a towering figure, both physically and vocally. Sure of himself, he commands the stage. The same is true of Stephanie Blythe’s Fricka, by turns loving and imperious, sung effortlessly. Bass Eric Owes’ Alberich is both menacing and pitiable, and the voice is huge and tireless. Richard Croft’s Loge, with fire emanating from his fingers and surrounded by projections of fire wherever he walks, is a wily, intelligent portrayal. Hans-Peter König and Franz-Josef Selig are grand-voiced giants; Wendy Bryn Harmer’s Freia is womanly and strong-voiced. Patricia Bardon intoned Erda’s warning with conviction, Dwayne Croft impressed with Donner’s big moment and Adam Diegel’s Froh was bright-voiced. Gerhard Siegel’s Mime was properly creepy.

I doubt there is an orchestra in the world that can play this music better than the Met’s; from the insinuating Rhine music at the start to the epic entry into Valhalla, their tone and accuracy were stunning. James Levine, back after a series of illnesses, led handsomely and more quickly than previously, with just a bit of dragging in the opera’s second scene.

It is difficult to tell what Robert Lepage’s philosophical point of view may be. Suffice it to say that the gods do not laugh as they cross the rainbow bridge, and the final scene is of a totally walled-up Valhalla, implying that they are separating themselves from the world entirely.

Die Walküre arrives in the Spring; we shall know more then.

Das Rhinegold will be relayed live to cinemas in 46 countries on 9 October as part of the ongoing series The Met: Live in HD. To find out details of your local screening, click here.


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