> Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor [JL]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Lucia di Lammermoor
Opera in three acts, Libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, after Sir Walter Scott's novel
The Australian Opera Chorus, The Elizabethan Sydney Orchestra, Conducted by Richard Bonynge, Stage Production by John Copley
Cast: Joan Sutherland, Richard Greager, Malcolm Donnelly, Clifford Grant, Robin Donald
Recorded: Sydney 1986
ARTHAUS Sel. No. 100 242 PAL [2 CDs 145.00]


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For those heading to purchase this DVD attracted by the name of Sutherland, be warned. The 1986 Sydney Opera House performance in front of her adoring home crowd represents the Diva in the twilight of her career. By no means though does this disqualify it.

Sutherland's first audio recording of Lucia di Lammermoor, conducted by John Pritchard, was in 1961 when ‘La Stupenda’ was in her early prime, but it was the one made ten years later that finds her in better voice in an overall finer performance. Conducted by husband Richard Bonynge, there is the added bonus of Pavarotti in full flight.

This DVD, transferred from a video of a live performance conducted by Bonynge, competent though it is, cannot compete with those previous recordings in musical terms. But people will be purchasing the DVD so that they can see it as well as hear it, so let me deal with that aspect first.

Anyone reading Sir Walter Scott's original The Bride of Lammermoor (and few read Scott these days apart from Antonia Fraser) will form in their mind’s eye a picture of Lucy/Lucia. Whatever that is, it is not likely to look like a sixty year old Joan Sutherland.

Compounded with the fact that Sutherland's acting ability was never regarded as her strong point (maybe a little unfairly since she was inevitably compared with Callas whose strong point it was) then there are clearly problems with the lead role dramatically and visually.

The production and sets overall are dependable in a traditional sort of way. Unfortunately it is this tradition that proves one of the chief drawbacks for video/DVD. The production takes the stereotypical view of historical Scotland as a place where people live in dark, gloomy castles in a dark and gloomy climate. This means it is quite difficult to see clearly what is going on sometimes. At the start of the last act there is the strange apparition of a moving white blob under which there are two smaller blobs moving about in triangular formation. As the camera homes in we see it is Elgardo in white ruff and cuffs. Now the obvious solution is to turn up the brightness on your set but this leads to more problems - the revealing picture is a grainy affair and if you are using the shiny, white subtitles which are obtrusive enough anyway, then they become even more distractingly bright. At least Arthaus allows you to turn them off which is not always possible on some opera DVDs

From a purely musical point of view the performance, like the production, is dependable as you would expect from the Sutherland/Bonynge team. Given Bonynge’s experienced handling of this score, the enterprise then hinges on the lead role. Lucia is the work that catapulted Sutherland to fame in 1959 at Covent Garden and, Callas notwithstanding, no one present had ever heard such a voice in the coloratura role before. This performance is twenty seven years on and I can only echo the Sunday Observer headline to a review of Pavarotti in Tosca at Covent Garden the other day, the gist being – he may be getting on a bit to say the least, but the voice is good. As I was watching the wind up to the end of the Act 2 quartet, and again the dramatic conclusion to the Act (excitingly done here with the whole ensemble in full flight, mercifully better lit than most of the rest) I feared for the fearsome high note finishes Sutherland would have to contend with.. Oh ye of little faith. There they were, ringingly delivered with little sign of stress. The voice may not be what it was, but this is still a world class rendering of the part, and to look further on the bright side, Sutherland’s acting ability had improved over the years.

The supporting cast is able, Malcolm Donnelly providing a fine baritone presence as Enrico. Richard Greager does well in the tenor role of Elgardo but what he is not is an Italian tenor. This all-Australasian cast cannot provide that special, authentic spine tingling ring to its Italian and it is most noticeably missing in Elgardo’s role. But to be fair, one can’t help having Pavarotti in the mind’s ear.

This DVD is in direct competition with a Pioneer Video production taken from a 1982 Metropolitan Opera performance. Again accompanied by Bonynge, it marked Sutherland’s triumphant return to the Met after several years. She is in marginally better voice, the orchestral playing is superior and in Alfredo Kraus she has a genuine Italian tenor (although, like her, past his prime). On balance I would score it higher.

If it is Sutherland you want to HEAR in her phenomenal prime, then the 1971 Covent Garden performance mentioned above is easily available on CD.

John Leeman


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