Review of Joan Sutherland tour recording 1965 – Opera News 2003

Joan Sutherland “LIVE IN AUSTRALIA 1965

Joan Sutherland - I Puritani
Joan Sutherland – I Puritani

Excerpts from Semiramide, Faust, La Traviata, La Sonnambula. Harwood, Sinclair, Elms; Pavarotti, J. Alexander, Opthof, Rouleau, Cross, others. Sutherland-Williamson Grand Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus, Bonynge/Weibel. Desirée Records CD 2965 (Norbeck, Peters & Ford, dist., 802-868-9300)

On July 17, 1951, Joan Sutherland left Sydney, Australia, with a purse full of prize money and the dream of singing at Covent Garden. Fourteen years later, she returned, the centerpiece of an old-fashioned, rigorous tour presented by J. C. Williamson Ltd. and organized by Sir Frank Tait, who had arranged legendary Nellie Melba tours for the same company in 1911, 1924 and 1928. In the space of fourteen weeks, Sutherland sang forty-three performances in four Australian cities — twelve Violettas, eleven Lucias, eight Semiramides, six Sonnambula Aminas, and six Faust Marguerites.

The arduous task of artistic director was given to Richard Bonynge, who cast the other principals, oversaw everything and, of course, conducted. After some rather spiky moments upon arrival, when the local press attempted to create controversy about Sutherland’s lengthy absence from her homeland, the tour was a phenomenal success, creating an interest in opera that ultimately resulted in the establishment of several resident companies. Sutherland was in spectacular form for the tour, establishing herself as a national heroine through the glory of her singing. Conductor and Sutherland-chronicler Brian Castles-Onion has painstakingly assembled tapes, chosen excerpts from various “pirate” sources and released this two-CD set with the blessing of the diva.

Although sound quality is variable (only the Sonnambula excerpts are in really poor sound, however), the vocalism is of such prodigious quality that these documents are a must for Sutherland fans and for students of singing. Reservations held by some about the lack of clarity in the soprano’s diction, her sometimes-muddy middle register, her “cool” temperament, will surely be diminished — if not obliterated — by evidence to the contrary on these discs. And her trademark assets — supreme agility, exquisite high E-flats and that amazing trill, are represented in abundance. Here you’ll find Sutherland at her peak. Castles-Onion has omitted selections from Lucia altogether, feeling that the role is well represented elsewhere. He has chosen not to include “Bel raggio” in the Semiramide group for the same reason. But what is included constitutes a feast of virtuoso singing that confirms memories of the soprano one sometimes doubts as too good to be true.

Both Semiramide-Arsace duets are here, the first with the impressive Australian mezzo Lauris Elms, the second with the vocally fearless Monica Sinclair. Sutherland is an imperious, authoritative Semiramide in ensembles, melting vocally in the amorous moments, blending perfectly with both her duet partners. The florid Rossini singing is the kind that makes you press the “repeat” button repeatedly. Even more fascinating for its rarity is Sutherland’s “live” Marguerite, beautifully partnered by John Alexander, a fine Met Faust at that time. The jewel song is peerless, capped by a long trill and even longer B-natural, all in one breath. The love duet and final prison scene and trio are impassioned and beautifully phrased, and the French language brings Sutherland’s voice forward to a lighter, more youthful place, befitting the character. Richard Cross is the excellent Méphistophélès.

Luciano Pavarotti enjoying a game of Tennis in 1965. Photo Isla Baring
Luciano Pavarotti enjoying a game of Tennis in 1965. Photo Isla Baring

In some Traviata selections, we encounter the great “find” of the tour, the young Luciano Pavarotti, who also partnered the diva in La Sonnambula. The Traviata excerpts, which include all the Violetta-Alfredo duets (including the denunciation at Flora’s party, with Alexander as Alfredo), Violetta’s arias, the great duet with Germont and the finale of the opera, are miked closely, to thrilling effect. The textures of Pavarotti’s youthful instrument and Sutherland’s in its prime provide ample goose bumps, and Cornelius Opthof is a superb elder Germont. Violetta was Sutherland’s favorite role, and as it was not always her most successful, she worked extra hard to be convincing in it. In Australia, she succeeded. Finally, La Sonnambula is represented by two excerpts: the gorgeous “D’un pensiero … non è questa, ingrato core” ensemble of Act II, and Amina’s final cabaletta, “Ah, non giunge.” Some may argue with Sutherland and Bonynge’s breakneck speed, but it expresses perfectly both Amina’s joy in awakening to love and Sutherland’s sheer joy in singing. The inclusion of this piece, always a heart-stopping Sutherland moment in the theater, is most welcome, despite the poor sound quality. The discs conclude with a short curtain speech in Melbourne by the overwhelmed prima donna. Bonynge’s conducting is stylish and spirited; he seems to be, along with everyone involved, swept away by the occasion. The Faust selections are also handled very well, by alternate conductor William Weibel.

IRA SIFF, Opera News. April 2003

 

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