Fifty years ago the young soprano Joan Sutherland made one of the most sensational
debuts in the history of opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. There
she triumphed in the title role of Lucia in Donizetti's masterpiece Lucia di Lammermoor
. Sutherland sang Lucia hundreds of times around the world and it became one of her signature roles. If memory serves me she was dubbed La Stupenda
after singing Handel’s Alcina
at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Sutherland is sometimes described as the “High Priestess of Bel Canto
”. I recall tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who frequently sang with Sutherland, labelling her the “Voice of the Century
To commemorate the fifty year anniversary since Sutherland’s auspicious debut as Lucia Decca has issued this newly remastered limited edition of the renowned 1971 Kingsway Hall recording. This is the three act Italian version of Lucia di Lammermoor
. Sutherland is featured at the peak of her powers, accompanied by a stellar cast, notably Pavarotti, Milnes and Ghiaurov. The baton is held by Sutherland’s husband Richard Bonynge. She had first recorded Lucia
ten years earlier in 1961 at Rome with the Orchestra e coro dell' Accademia di Santa Cecilia Roma under Sir John Pritchard with Renato Cioni, Robert Merrill and Cesare Siepi. The set was one of the label’s ‘Legendary Performance’ series on Decca 467688. In this reissued and remastered 2009 Decca set a booklet note by session producer Christopher Raeburn explains that several sections from the manuscript score of Lucia
are included in this 1971 Kingsway Hall recording. The new set also includes a bonus disc of excerpts from Sutherland’s earlier Lucia
recordings. There are selections as Lucia from Sutherland’s famous 1959 Paris debut recital for Decca under conductor Nello Santi. Additionally there are scenes and arias from her first recording of Lucia
under Pritchard at Rome in 1961.
formed part of a three opera commission received in November 1834 from the Teatro San Carlo, Naples. As was the custom and practice in Italy at that time both the librettist and the subject matter for the opera were to be the choice of the San Carlo opera. At the end of May 1835 Donizetti was still writing to the San Carlo management for confirmation of the subject. It was Salvadore Cammarano who wrote the Italian libretto based loosely on Sir Walter Scott’s popular historical novel The Bride of Lammermoor
. Scott, it seems, took the plot for his novel from an actual incident that took place with the Dalrymple family in 1669 in the Lammermuir Hills in the Scottish Lowlands. Scott’s Gothic (or black) tale was a popular subject for librettists and before the Donizetti/Cammarano collaboration several other opera librettos had been prepared.
Donizetti progressed quickly and the completed autograph score is dated July 1835. The San Carlo opera-house was in a dire financial state and even as late in the day as the rehearsals Donizetti was convinced that it was about to go bankrupt. The premiere of Lucia
was given in at the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples in September 1835. Two years later the original Italian version was staged in Paris at the Théâtre-Italien in December 1837. The success of Lucia
aroused much interest in Paris and Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz adapted the Italian libretto into French with Donizetti reworking parts of the score. This French version, titled Lucie de Lammermoor
also in three acts was given its Parisian premiere in August 1839 at the Théâtre de la Renaissance. Owing to its closeness to requirements of French Grand Opera Lucie
was later staged at the prestigious L’Opera, Paris in February 1846. Showing its extreme popularity in the period 1846 to 1990 Lucie
received almost 200 performances at L’Opéra. Right from its San Carlo premiere Lucia
has undergone alterations in various guises appearing in 2, 3 and 4 act adaptations usually without the composer’s consent. Many of these I have seen described as “abominations
Lucia di Lammermoor
was highly successful at its Naples premiere and remains one of the leading bel canto
operas in the repertoire. Set in Scotland at the turn of the seventeenth century the tragic story is about two feuding families: the Protestant Ashtons and the Ravenswoods who are Catholic supporters of Mary Queen of Scots. The scenario concerns the love between Lucia Ashton and Sir Edgardo di Ravenswood. As one of the most disturbed heroines in all opera Lucia is driven to madness when forced to marry Arturo, a man she detests. The highlight occurs in act three, scene two, set in the great hall of Ravenswood Castle where wedding festivities are underway. A crazed and blood-stained Lucia appears dressed in a long white gown and wielding a knife dripping with blood recently used to murder her husband. She is deranged and is rambling that she is soon to marry Eduardo. Soon Lucia disappears to die alone. Edgardo is waiting for dawn by the tombs of his ancestors. He thinks bitterly of Lucia’s apparent infidelity. Reports of her imminent death are followed by the death knell. Realising that he has misjudged her, Edgardo stabs himself with a dagger so he can join Lucia in heaven.
Lucia the heroine of Donizetti’s tragic masterpiece is a touchstone coloratura role and has inspired many memorable performances in the annals of opera. Dame Joan played the heroine Lucia frequently at Covent Garden between 1959 and 1985 starring opposite such distinguished Edgardos as Carlo Bergonzi and Luciano Pavarotti.
In this acclaimed 1971 recording I have been particularly impressed by the following scenes. The act 1, scene 2 ‘Fountain Scene’ with the aria Regnava nel silenzio
(CD1, track 6) has a dangerously excited Lucia waiting by the ruined fountain where she is to meet her lover Edgardo. Lucia tells her maid Alisa of a Ravenswood who had murdered his mistress and fell into the water of the fountain. Lucia asserts she has seen an apparition of the murdered woman. Following on in Quando, rapito in estasi
(CD1, track 7) Alisa foretells Lucia of a terrible sadness to come but Lucia can only think of the heavenly joy she feels when she is with Edgardo. Sutherland as Lucia is beautifully in tune and her coloratura display is in brilliant form but I’m never too convinced by the quality of her diction.
Also from act 1, scene 2 (CD1, track 9) I was struck by the well known duet Sulla tomba che rinserra
between the girlish Lucia who is calming down her angry lover Edgardo. They swear their undying love for each other but agree to keep their affair secret. Sutherland is compelling and controlled and Pavarotti is a pleasingly ardent lover singing with a heroic sense of character. This is a wonderful interpretation with moments of great harmony to savour.
The famous act 3, scene 2 ‘Mad Scene’ is extensive and runs from Oh, giusto cielo! ... Il dolce suono
(CD2, track 10) to Spargi d'amaro pianto
(CD2, track 13). Widely recognised as a tour de force
of opera the scene has been a vehicle for several eminent coloratura sopranos. The ‘Mad Scene’ provided a breakthrough for Joan Sutherland for its technicality and dramatic demands. Set in the Great Hall at Ravenswood with the wedding festivities in full swing Lucia enters dressed in a white gown and the disturbing horrors of the scene develops. The assured Sutherland is at her finest here, convincing and moving; if not reaching the dramatic heights of Callas.
Another highlight is Edgardo’s suicide aria Tombe, degli avi miei
from act 3, scene 3 (CD2, track 15). By the tombs of his ancestors Edgardo discovers that Lucia has not been unfaithful. Learning of her madness and subsequent death Edgardo kills himself so they can be united in heaven. Overwhelmed with emotion Edgardo asks the Lord for forgiveness. Pavarotti clearly relishes the role as Edgardo, performing with distinction, a warm and clear focused tone and no small degree of character.
Conductor Richard Bonynge directs the proceedings with well-chosen tempi and an unerring grasp of the required drama. On Decca this limited edition set featuring La Stupenda
in her most celebrated role is presented in hard cover format. I’m not sure that the binding will prove strong enough for the substantial 185 page booklet and the three discs within. My copy is already showing signs of strain. The annotation is excellent including a couple of interesting essays, a note from the conductor Richard Bonynge, several photographs and reproductions of prints, a synopsis and most importantly a full libretto in Italian, German, French and English languages. The remastered sound quality is first class.
The bonus disc in the Decca set offers a fascinating insight into the early recording career of Joan Sutherland. We have excerpts of the young coloratura soprano as Lucia from 1959 in Paris under Nello Santi and from 1961 in Rome under Pritchard. These scenes and arias from Lucia di Lammermoor
are excellently sung by Sutherland with freshness and considerable proficiency; they are well recorded too.
One of the best known and certainly the most expressive interpreter of the role of Lucia is Maria Callas. According to musicologist Friedrich Lippmann, Callas restored dramatic credibility to the role, rescuing Lucia from the restricted category of the coloratura soprano. In the title role I admire Callas’s fine and best-selling 1953 mono recording of Lucia di Lammermoor
with Giuseppe Di Stefano (Edgardo) and Tito Gobbi (Enrico) with the Chorus and Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino under maestro Tullio Serafin. It was following Callas’s performances of Lucia
in Florence that EMI undertook these studio recording sessions made at the Teatro Comunale, Florence. The EMI recording was published by Columbia in the UK and Angel Records in the USA. Impressive is how the mono recording has been expertly cleaned by Mark Obert-Thorn for Naxos Historical Great Opera Recordings 8.110131-32
. I also have in my collection the same mono Callas performance on a digitally remastered EMI Classics series ‘Great Recording of the Century’ 5 62747 2.
I must mention two other Callas recordings of Lucia
that have an enthusiastic following. From 1955 there is the live Berlin State Opera performance with Giuseppe Di Stefano (Edgardo) and Rolando Panerai (Enrico) with the Chorus of La Scala, Milan and the RIAS Symphony Orchestra, Berlin conducted by Herbert von Karajan. I have the Callas/Karajan set on EMI Classics 5 66441 2. There is also the stereo version that Callas made in the studio at the Kingsway Hall, London in 1959. Here Callas’s partners are Ferruccio Tagliavini (Edgardo) and Piero Cappuccilli (Enrico) with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Tullio Serafin. I have the set in my collection on EMI Classics 5 56284 2.
I have long appreciated the merits of the 1990 recording of Lucia di Lammermoor
in the two act (two part) Italian version with Cheryl Studer as Lucia, Placido Domingo (Edgardo) and Juan Ponds (Enrico). The Ambrosian Opera Chorus and London Symphony Orchestra are conducted by Ion Marin from St. John's Smith Square, London on Deutsche Grammophon 435 309-2. In a riveting partnership between Studer and Domingo showing an impressive affinity for this music this is a fine recording that I often play.
My passion for French Grand Opera led to me obtain a most splendid 2002 recording of the 1839 French version in three acts titled Lucie de Lammermoor
. These are marvellous performances from Natalie Dessay as Lucie, Roberto Alagna as (Edgard) and Ludovic Tézier (Henri Ashton) with the National Opera Orchestra and Chorus of Lyon conducted by Evelino Pidò. The recording was made at the Opéra de Lyon, France on Virgin Classics 7243 5 45528 2 3. I treasure this French version featuring Natalie Dessay and Roberto Alagna for its powerful drama and tremendous singing. The support from Evelino Pidò and his Lyon forces is most impressive.
On the Sky Arts TV channel this month (December 2009) I have thoroughly enjoyed the Mary Zimmerman production of Lucia di Lammermoor
from the New York Metropolitan Opera given in February 2009. Splendidly staged as a Victorian ghost story, Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala star as Donizetti's fragile title heroine and her lover. Mariusz Kwiecien is cast as Lucia's tyrannical brother Enrico and Marco Armiliato conducts the Metropolitan Orchestra. Anna Netrebko was returning to the stage soon after maternity leave and Piotr Beczala was replacing Rolando Villazón who had to withdraw from the role as Edgardo. The performance is newly available on two DVDs on Deutsche Grammophon 0734526. On balance this excellent staging of Lucia
staring Netrebko and Beczala would be my favourite selection of the Italian versions if it was available on CD.
In summary, on this newly remastered 1971 Kingsway Hall, Decca set Joan Sutherland’s command of coloratura is excellent and her dramatic abilities are more than adequate. La Stupenda
has the additional advantage of support from Luciano Pavarotti as her Edgardo. Had Maria Callas’s 1953 mono performance with Giuseppe Di Stefano and Tito Gobbi been a more modern recording it would probably be my premier choice. Cheryl Studer’s 1999 London interpretation with Placido Domingo for Deutsche Grammophon remains one to which I love to return. I was bowled over by the February 2009 Metropolitan Opera production of Lucia
with Netrebko and Beczala in the starring roles. This tremendous live performance is available on DVD on Deutsche Grammophon and on balance would be my favourite selection of all the versions should it became available on CD. However, from my collection the recording that I play more than any other is the wonderful 1839 French version starring Dessay and Alagna on Virgin Classics.
This is a splendid set. The fascinating bonus excerpts adds to the appeal.
A splendid remastered limited edition Decca set starring Dame Joan Sutherland in 1971 in one of her most celebrated roles as Lucia from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor
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