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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Lucrezia Borgia (1833)
Dame Joan Sutherland, soprano (Lucrezia): Alfredo Kraus, tenor (Gennaro): Anne Howells, mezzo-soprano (Maffio Orsini): Stafford Dean, bass (Alfonso d’Este): Jonathan Summers, baritone (Gazella): Philip Gelling, baritone (Acanio Petrucci): Michael Goldthorpe, tenor (Vitellozzo): Robin Leggate, tenor (Liverotto): Paul Hudson, bass (Gubetto): Francis Egerton, tenor (Rustighello): Roderick Kennedy, baritone (Atolfo): Alun Jenkins, bass (Sepulchral voice): Gwynneth Price, mezzo-soprano (Princess Negroni): Edward Sadler, bass (Usher): Anthony Smith, bass (Cup-bearer): Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
rec. Royal Opera Covent Garden, London, 29 March 1980
OPUS ARTE OA1237D DVD [147 mins]

It is one of the great tragedies of the recorded legacy of opera that none of Maria Callas’s complete stage performances during the 1950s were ever committed to film, although the technology to do so was certainly there. We do of course have a massive raft of live and studio-based audio recordings from that period, but unfortunately these serve to illustrate the growing uncertainties of her vocal production – wayward pitch, unsteady production on high notes, a tendency to growl on lower ones – in a manner that leaves new listeners at a loss to explain her high reputation. It is only when one can see her on stage in such video recordings as Act Two of Tosca from Covent Garden that one can realise the sheer electricity she could generate in live performance, in a manner that enables the viewer to tolerate and indeed overlook her vocal imperfections. Joan Sutherland, often compared to Callas in her early years, was more fortunate in that her extended career meant that quite a few of her stage performances were preserved for posterity; but again it has to be noted that these pale into insignificance next to her massive representation on audio recordings, including many works that she performed rarely or not at all in the opera house. Sutherland of course lacked the innate dramatic sense that made Callas so riveting; but she was far more than the passive cipher that some critics at the time alleged. When she was given guidance from a producer, she could throw herself into the most exacting of roles; and her Lucia di Lammermoor, for example, originally performed in 1959 under the direction of the young Franco Zeffirelli, could still command the stage both musically and dramatically some thirty years later.

It is however hard to deny that Sutherland’s legacy on video is far from adequate by modern standards, when any and every new production seems to find its way onto DVD despite frequently questionable merits. Many of her video recordings stem from productions for Australian Opera, made at a time when Sutherland’s voice was no longer as pure and steady as it once was; and the casts which surround her in these productions, although never less than adequate singers and often considerably more than that, are not stars of the international firmament in the same league as the prima donna herself. This makes the rare video recordings of Sutherland in her prime and with a really worthy supporting cast all the more valuable, and it seems surprising that this 1980 Lucrezia Borgia has had a rather patchy record of availability over the years. It seems, for example, to have completely missed the attention of Alan Blyth and Michael Scott Rohan in their surveys of opera on video in the 1990s; and the Metropolitan Opera Guide of 1997, although it reviews a 1977 performance of the same opera from Australian sources, ignores the existence of this later Covent Garden recording ending with the wistful comment “Sad to say, this will likely be the only video Borgia for some time.”

And yet this recording, now reissued by Opus Arte, is one of the best representations we have in video terms of Sutherland in one of the great dramatic bel canto operas. The prima donna at this stage in her career was still in full command of her amazing high register, and the unsteadiness which was to creep into her middle range during the 1980s is hardly in evidence here. She remains a rather aloof and statuesque figure – one can only imagine what the tigerish Callas might have been like in this role on stage (unfortunately her recordings are restricted to excerpts) – but the unclear diction of which critics complained in her earlier years is much improved, and the placing of the notes is undiminished in its clarity. For once on video she is given a real challenge in terms of her leading man; Alfredo Kraus was one of the superstars of his day, and he does everything to justify his reputation as Gennaro. Anne Howells made something of a speciality of trouser roles (she was a superb Octavian in Solti’s video of Rosenkavalier) and she makes a believably virile character out of the youth Maffio Orisini. Stafford Dean too is no mean shakes as Alfonso, black as night and rock solid in tone. The sizeable supporting cast includes singers of the stature of Jonathan Summers, Robin Leggate, Paul Hudson, Francis Egerton and Roderick Kennedy, and the chorus sound well if not terribly dramatically engaged.

Richard Bonynge, the almost inevitable conductor of his wife’s performances, has come in for a great deal of critical stick over the years, as well as disparagement from the likes of Rudolf Bing as manager of the New York Metropolitan Opera and John Culshaw of Decca in their autobiographies; but he understands the idiom perfectly, manages the orchestral ebb and flow well when accompanying his singers, and lets them rip dramatically when required. He obviously obtains a better and more substantial sound from the Covent Garden orchestra that from the slimmed-down Australian forces that could be crammed into the pit at the Sydney Opera House in other Sutherland recordings. John Copley’s direction is traditional, as are the sets by John Pascoe for what was then a new production, first given three days before the date of this performance; and this may be welcome in an era which presumably would nowadays update the action to Mussolini’s Italy, Mao’s China, Stalinist Russia, or some other unlikely location.

The recording, we are told, is “preserved in its original Standard Definition and 4:3 picture format.” Presumably that is to be read as an admission by Opus Arte that they did not regard the film (originally made for television) as in need of remastering. This is a shame, as the colour in the original production is decidedly short-changed with rather bleached skin tones and the grainy quality of the format clearly visible even on the front cover of the DVD box (primary colours fare better, although the overall picture remains dark). Nor has much been done to enhance the presentation of the opera; the booklet does not even contain a track listing, merely a cast list and a brief synopsis in three languages. Subtitles, as in the TV broadcast, come in English only; and it does not appear that they can be switched off. The DVD was previously issued in 2002 by Kultur Video but although the television picture was similarly gloomy I am not aware of how well (or otherwise) it was presented in documentary terms at that time. Otherwise Lucrezia Borgia is represented on video in current catalogues by two Blu-Ray issues, featuring Edita Gruberová and Renée Fleming respectively, and a Naxos DVD from the Bergamo Festival. The Australian version from 1977 seems to have vanished from the listings, although Amazon still lists copies for sale at reasonable prices.

Despite these reservations this DVD is clearly a must-have for all Sutherland fans, who may have missed it on earlier releases; and it may lay a strong claim to being one of the best performances on disc in any medium. The cast here is certainly the equal of that on Sutherland’s 1977 audio recording, which remained the prime recommendation in the Penguin Guide over many years. I note that the aforementioned review in the Metropolitan Guide compares Sutherland unfavourably with Montserrat Caballé on her famous audio recording; but even in purely dramatic terms Caballé is no more convincing than Sutherland as Donizetti’s demented murderess. The whole opera is of course as much a libel on the historical Lucretia Borgia as is Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov on that unfortunate tsar; but such considerations need hardly detain us here.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

 




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