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
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.