Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901) Sempre libera (La Traviata) [6.55] (1) ; Caro nome (Rigoletto) [6.22] (1) ; Merce, dilette amiche (I Vespri Siciliani) [3.36] (2) ; Piange cantando (Otello) [8.12] (1)
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797–1848) Regnava nel silenzio (Lucia di Lammermoor) [13:08] (2) ; Mad Scene (Lucia di Lammermoor) [16:18] (2); O luce di quest anima (Linda di Chamounix) [6.14] (2)
Ambroise THOMAS (1811–1896) Mad Scene (Hamlet) [8.57] (1)
Charles GOUNOD (1818–1893) Je veux vivre (Roméo et Juliette) [3.32] (1)
Luigi ARDITI (1822–1903) Il bacio [3.59]
Joan Sutherland (soprano)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Francesco Molinari-Pradelli (1)
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Nello Santi (2)
rec. 1960 (1), 1959 (2)
ALTO ALC 1155 [77:05]
This disc from Alto showcases the talents of Joan Sutherland captured around the time of her big breakthrough at Covent Garden singing the role of Lucia di Lammermoor. Shortly after this event she recorded her first recital disc with orchestra, going into the studio with Nello Santi and singing arias from Lucia along with Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, Verdi’s Ernani and I Vespri Siciliani. If this selection does not seem quite typical of a Sutherland recital, we must bear in mind that after the spectacular success in Lucia di Lammermoor with Tullio Serafin conducting, Serafin was keen for her to follow this up with Lady Macbeth. One of the startling things about Sutherland’s early Lucia was not the technical brilliance, but the sheer size of the voice and she could, perhaps, have developed into a striking spinto soprano, but she didn’t. This is apparent from her next recording, The Art of the Prima Donna, made with Francesco Molinari-Pradelli and the Royal Opera House Orchestra; here Sutherland assembled a dazzling series of hommages to great prima donnas of the past, and demonstrated her consummate ease with the coloratura repertoire. This disc demonstrates something else which would run through Sutherland’s career, a sense of approaching Verdi from the past, performing Gilda and other roles firmly set in the style of the singers of his day without exploring the way Verdi was pushing vocalism onwards.
Alto have been issuing discs of excerpts from The Art of the Prima Donna and now they have taken a group of arias from this disc, and mixed them with a selection from the 1959 Nello Santi recital (omitting the Ernani aria) to give a picture of Sutherland in her early prime. Listening to the items on this disc, it is hardly possible not to be astonished by the great beauty and technical facility of Sutherland’s voice. However, in a 1981 Gramophone review of the Nello Santi recital John Steane points out that what the recording doesn’t give you is a sense of the amplitude of Sutherland’s voice, how it filled the house; this is something we must bear in mind when listening to the glorious coloratura on the disc. Sutherland didn’t just have the ability to sing notes fast or high, her upper register was evenly linked to the rest of her voice. Her vocal production was even and smooth from bottom to very top; on this disc the acuti are simply part of the voice, as beautiful as the rest.
Listening to her diction here, you might consider that this is a promising singer and but that a bit more work is required; here history laughs at us as we realise that items on this disc represented the peak of Sutherland’s achievement when it came to diction and of making something of the words. A singing teacher of mine used to opine that coloratura meant coloured, that the singer should bear in mind the different colours of the individual notes; this is something you get from Callas, a sensitivity to the words and to how they colour the music, the conveyance of detailed meaning in each phrase. On this disc Sutherland approaches this ideal, but she would never consistently do so again. As her technique matured, even if you forget the mannerisms that crept in, it was obvious that text and meaning were never of prime importance, instead it was line and phrase.
So the arias on this disc enable us to hear the young Sutherland - young is a relative term, she was 33 when she made her Lucia debut - and to appreciate the glory of the voice, combined with a stunning technique.
The Willow Song from Otello and the aria from I Vespri Siciliani are both items which are sung by sopranos with more dramatic voices, spinto rather than lyric, and they give hints of how Sutherland without Bonynge might have developed, bringing out the spinto elements . Also, being able to compare and contrast the different styles of aria, we can see that Sutherland’s technique was very much wedded to the Italian repertoire. Her performance of the mad scene from Thomas’ Hamlet is quite brilliant in its way, but if you listen to a French coloratura singer in the role, or Sutherland’s great Australian predecessor Nellie Melba, you can get a sense of the finer, narrower-focused vocalism that this role requires. Interestingly, Melba is another singer whose voice on disc can be deceptive in size, especially given the limited recording techniques and the slender path of her vocal emission. One commentator described her voice as akin to listening to a silver trumpet.
If you are interested in Sutherland, this might not necessarily be the disc for you. For one, neither the Santi nor the Molinari-Pradelli recitals are represented complete; instead Alto spreads them across discs. So this might be a disc which you would buy for someone who has not heard the young Sutherland and who did not possess the complete Art of the Prima Donna recital. Perhaps, except that one or two of the transfers themselves worried me; there seemed to be a degree of congestion, a hint of distortion, in the upper registers on some tracks. Simply said, if you are at all interested in the young Sutherland then I would suggest looking out for the Art of the Prima Donna in its 2-disc format; this is essential listening for anyone interested in fine vocalism.
Robert Hugill
Showcases the talents of the young Sutherland.