Tuesday, 12 October 2010
A real artistic legend leaves us
Joan Sutherland is dead at age 83 years. My first reaction I must admit, is "she was 83?!". For me and millions of other opera lovers she will be forever young and fixed on the stage, taking us with her on a musical journey of extraordinary beauty. I am an opera lover. I say it with no apology. She was one of the greats and the world is less without her in it.
October 11, 2010
Joan Sutherland, Flawless Soprano, Is Dead at 83
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Joan Sutherland, one of the most acclaimed sopranos of the 20th century, a singer of such power and range that she was crowned “La Stupenda,” died on Sunday at her home in Switzerland, near Montreux. She was 83.
Her death was confirmed by her close friend the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne.
It was Italy’s notoriously picky critics who dubbed the Australian-born Ms. Sutherland the Stupendous One after her Italian debut, in Venice in 1960. And for 40 years the name endured with opera lovers around the world. Her 1961 debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” generated so much excitement that standees began lining up at 7:30 that morning. Her singing of the Mad Scene drew a thunderous 12-minute ovation.
Ms. Sutherland’s singing was founded on astonishing technique. Her voice was evenly produced throughout an enormous range, from a low G to effortless flights above high C. She could spin lyrical phrases with elegant legato, subtle colorings and expressive nuances. Her sound was warm, vibrant and resonant, without any forcing. Indeed, her voice was so naturally large that at the start of her career Ms. Sutherland seemed destined to become a Wagnerian dramatic soprano.
Following her first professional performances, in 1948, during a decade of steady growth and intensive training, Ms. Sutherland developed incomparable facility for fast runs, elaborate roulades and impeccable trills. She did not compromise the passagework, as many do, by glossing over scurrying runs, but sang almost every note fully.
Her abilities led Richard Bonynge, the Sydney-born conductor and vocal coach whom she married in 1954, to persuade her early on to explore the early-19th-century Italian opera of the bel canto school. She became a major force in its revitalization.
Bel canto (which translates as “beautiful song” or “beautiful singing”) denotes an approach to singing exemplified by evenness through the range and great agility. The term also refers to the early-19th-century Italian operas steeped in bel canto style. Outside of Italy, the repertory had languished for decades when Maria Callas appeared in the early 1950s and demonstrated that operas like “Lucia di Lammermoor” and Bellini’s “Norma” were not just showcases for coloratura virtuosity but musically elegant and dramatically gripping works as well.
Even as a young man, Mr. Bonynge had uncommon knowledge of bel canto repertory and style. Ms. Sutherland and Mr. Bonynge, who is four years younger than she, met in Sydney at a youth concert and became casual friends. They were reacquainted later in London, where Ms. Sutherland settled with her mother in 1951 to attend the Royal College of Music. There Mr. Bonynge became the major influence on her development.
Ms. Sutherland used to say she thought of herself and her husband as a duo and that she didn’t talk of her career, “but of ours.”
In a 1961 profile in The New York Times Magazine she said she initially had “a big rather wild voice” that was not heavy enough for Wagner, although she did not realize this until she heard “Wagner sung as it should be.”
“Richard had decided — long before I agreed with him — that I was a coloratura,” she said.
“We fought like cats and dogs over it,” she said, adding, “It took Richard three years to convince me.”
In her repertory choices Ms. Sutherland ranged widely during the 1950s, singing lighter lyric Mozart roles like the Countess in “Le Nozze di Figaro” and heavier Verdi roles like Amelia in “Un Ballo in Maschera.” Even then, astute listeners realized that she was en route to becoming something extraordinary.
In a glowing and perceptive review of her performance as Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello” at Covent Garden in London in late 1957, the critic Andrew Porter, writing in The Financial Times, commended her for not “sacrificing purity to power.” This is “not her way,” Mr. Porter wrote, “and five years on we shall bless her for her not endeavoring now to be ‘exciting’ but, instead, lyrical and beautiful.”
She became an international sensation after her career-defining performance in the title role of “Lucia di Lammermoor” at Covent Garden — its first presentation there since 1925 — which opened on Feb. 17, 1959. The production was directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by the Italian maestro Tullio Serafin, a longtime Callas colleague, who elicited from the 32-year-old soprano a vocally resplendent and dramatically affecting portrayal of the trusting, unstable young bride of Lammermoor.
Mr. Porter, reviewing the performance in The Financial Times, wrote that the brilliance of Ms. Sutherland’s singing was to be expected by this point. The surprise, he explained, was the new dramatic presence she brought to bear.
“The traces of self-consciousness, of awkwardness on the stage, had disappeared; and at the same time she sang more freely, more powerfully, more intensely — and also more bewitchingly — than ever before.”
This triumph was followed in 1960 by landmark portrayals in neglected bel canto operas by Bellini: Elvira in “I Puritani” at the Glyndebourne Festival (the first presentation in England since 1887) and “La Sonnambula” at Covent Garden (the company’s first production in half a century).
Ms. Sutherland’s American debut came in November 1960 in the title role of Handel’s “Alcina” at the Dallas Opera, the first American production of this now-popular work. Her distinguished Decca recording of “Lucia di Lammermoor,” with an exceptional cast conducted by John Pritchard, was released in 1961, the year of her enormously anticipated Metropolitan Opera debut in that same work, on Nov. 26.
At Ms. Sutherland’s first appearance, before she had sung a note, there was an enthusiastic ovation. Following the first half of Lucia’s Mad Scene in the final act, which culminated in a glorious high E-flat, the ovation lasted almost 5 minutes. When she finished the scene and her crazed, dying Lucia collapsed to the stage floor, the ovation lasted 12 minutes.
Reviewing the performance in The New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg wrote that other sopranos might have more power or a sweeter tone, but “there is none around who has the combination of technique, vocal security, clarity and finesse that Miss Sutherland can summon.”
Even for some admirers, though, there were limitations to her artistry. Her diction was often indistinct. After receiving steady criticism for this shortcoming, Ms. Sutherland worked to correct it, and sang with crisper enunciation in the 1970s.
She was also sometimes criticized for delivering dramatically bland performances. At 5-foot-9, she was a large woman, with long arms and large hands, and a long, wide face. As her renown increased, she insisted that designers create costumes for her that compensated for her figure, which, as she admitted self-deprecatingly in countless interviews, was somewhat flat in the bust but wide in the rib cage. Certain dresses could make her look like “a large column walking about the stage,” she wrote in “The Autobiography of Joan Sutherland: A Prima Donna’s Progress” (1997).
Paradoxically, Mr. Bonynge contributed to the sometimes dramatically uninvolved quality of her performances. By the mid-1960s he was her conductor of choice, often part of the deal when she signed a contract. Trained as a pianist and vocal coach, he essentially taught himself conducting. Even after extended experience, he was not the maestro opera fans turned to for arresting performances of Verdi’s “Traviata.” But he thoroughly understood the bel canto style and was attuned to every component of his wife’s voice.
Yet if urging her to be sensible added to her longevity, it sometimes resulted in her playing it safe. Other conductors prodded Ms. Sutherland to sing with greater intensity: for example, Georg Solti, in an acclaimed 1967 recording of Verdi’s Requiem with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera Chorus, and Zubin Mehta, who enticed Ms. Sutherland into recording the title role in Puccini’s “Turandot,” which she never sang onstage, for a 1972 recording. Both of these projects featured the tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who would become an ideal partner for Ms. Sutherland in the bel canto repertory. Ms. Sutherland’s fiery Turandot suggests she had dramatic abilities that were never tapped.
Joan Alston Sutherland was born on Nov. 7, 1926, in Sydney, where the family lived in a modest house overlooking the harbor. The family garden and the rich array of wildflowers on the hillside near the beach inspired her lifelong love of gardening.
Her mother, Muriel Sutherland, was a fine mezzo-soprano who had studied with Mathilde Marchesi, the teacher of the Australian soprano Nellie Melba. Though too shy for the stage, Ms. Sutherland’s mother did vocal exercises every day and was her daughter’s principal teacher throughout her adolescence.
Ms. Sutherland’s father, William, a Scottish-born tailor, had been married before. His first wife died during the influenza epidemic after World War I, leaving him with three daughters and a son. Ms. Sutherland was the only child of his second marriage. He died on the day of Ms. Sutherland’s sixth birthday. He had just given her a new bathing suit and she wanted to try it out. Though feeling unwell, he climbed down to the beach with her and, upon returning, collapsed in his wife’s arms. Joan, along with her youngest half-sister and their mother, moved into the home of an aunt and uncle, who had sufficient room and a big garden in the Sydney suburb of Woollahra.
Although Ms. Sutherland’s mother soon recognized her daughter’s gifts, she pegged her as a mezzo-soprano. At 16, facing the reality of having to support herself, Ms. Sutherland completed a secretarial course and took office jobs, while keeping up her vocal studies. She began lessons in Sydney with Aida Dickens, who convinced her that she was a soprano, very likely a dramatic soprano. Ms. Sutherland began singing oratorios and radio broadcasts and made a notable debut in 1947 as Purcell’s Dido in Sydney.
In 1951, with prize money from winning a prestigious vocal competition, she and her mother moved to London, where Ms. Sutherland enrolled at the opera school of the Royal College of Music. The next year, after three previous unsuccessful auditions, she was accepted into the Royal Opera at Covent Garden and made her debut as the First Lady in Mozart’s “Zauberflöte.”
In the company’s landmark 1952 production of Bellini’s “Norma,” starring Maria Callas, Ms. Sutherland sang the small role of Clotilde, Norma’s confidante. “Now look after your voice,” Callas advised her at the time, adding, “We’re going to hear great things of you.”
“I lusted to sing Norma after being in those performances with Callas,” Ms. Sutherland said in a 1998 New York Times interview. “But I knew that I could not sing it the way she did. It was 10 years before I sang the role. During that time I studied it, sang bits of it, and worked with Richard. But I had to evolve my own way to sing it, and I would have wrecked my voice to ribbons had I tried to sing it like her.”
In 1955 she created the lead role of Jenifer in Michael Tippett’s “Midsummer Marriage.”
During this period Ms. Sutherland gave birth to her only child, Adam, who survives her, along with two grandchildren and Mr. Bonynge, her husband of 56 years.
Immediately after her breakthrough performances as Lucia in 1959, Ms. Sutherland underwent sinus surgery to correct persistent problems with nasal passages that were chronically prone to becoming clogged. Though it was a risky operation for a singer, it was deemed successful.
In the early 1960s, using a home in southern Switzerland as a base, Ms. Sutherland made the rounds, singing in international opera houses and forming a close association with the Met, where she ultimately sang 223 performances. These included an acclaimed new production of “Norma” in 1970 with Ms. Horne in her Met debut, singing Adalgisa; Mr. Bonynge conducted. There was also a hugely popular 1972 production of Donizetti’s “Fille du Régiment,” with Pavarotti singing the role of Tonio.
Though never a compelling actress, Ms. Sutherland exuded vocal charisma, a good substitute for dramatic intensity. In the comic role of Marie in “La Fille du Régiment,” she conveyed endearingly awkward girlishness as the orphaned tomboy raised by an army regiment, proudly marching in place in her uniform while tossing off the vocal flourishes.
Ms. Sutherland was plain-spoken and down to earth, someone who enjoyed needlepoint and playing with her grandchildren. Though she knew who she was, she was quick to poke fun at her prima donna persona.
“I love all those demented old dames of the old operas,” she said in a 1961 Times profile. “All right, so they’re loony. The music’s wonderful.”
Queen Elizabeth II made Ms. Sutherland a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1978. Her bluntness sometimes caused her trouble. In 1994, addressing a luncheon organized by a group in favor of retaining the monarchy in Australia, she complained of having to be interviewed by a foreign-born clerk when applying to renew her passport, “a Chinese or an Indian — I’m not particularly racist — but find it ludicrous, when I’ve had a passport for 40 years.” Her remarks were widely reported, and she later apologized.
In retirement she mostly lived quietly at home but was persuaded to sit on juries of vocal competitions and, less often, to present master classes. In 2004 she received a Kennedy Center Honor for outstanding achievement throughout her career. In 2008, while gardening at her home in Switzerland, she fell and broke both legs, which led to a lengthy hospital stay.
Other sopranos may have been more musically probing and dramatically vivid. But few were such glorious vocalists. After hearing her New York debut in “Beatrice di Tenda” at Town Hall, the renowned Brazilian soprano Bidú Sayão, herself beloved for the sheer beauty of her voice, said, “If there is perfection in singing, this is it.”