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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797–1848)
Lucia di Lammermoor - three act opera (1835) [2:05:33]
Lucia - Joan Sutherland (soprano)
Edgardo – Joćo Gibin (tenor)
Enrico – John Shaw (baritone)
Raimondo – Joseph Rouleau (bass)
Arturo – Kenneth MacDonald (tenor)
Alisa – Margreta Elkins (mezzo)
Normanno – Robert Bowman (tenor)
The Covent Garden Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Tullio Serafin
rec. 26 February 1959, Royal Opera House, London. ADD
OPUS ARTE OADA8000DI [62:06 + 63:27]

Originally issued on the Royal Opera’s own label (and still available online if you look hard) in excellent, remastered mono sound made from a recording from a private source, this live performance documents the explosion of Joan Sutherland upon the operatic world as an international star, and as we approach the tenth anniversary of her death, that seems like a good excuse to look back on her first big triumph.

In truth, nobody else on stage matches her quality. Australian baritone John Shaw is sturdy, capable Enrico of no especial vocal glamour compared with such as Robert Merrill, Rolando Panerai or Sherrill Milnes, but I have distinct memories of hearing him sing an excellent Rigoletto on my first visit to Covent Garden and he was a fine artist. The Enrico, however, is a distinct liability: Brazilian tenor Joćo Gibin has a forced, unlovely tone, tends to sing consistently sharp and is lachrymose of manner – and I can further damn him with that ultimate example of faint phrase by observing that “he has all the notes”. I particularly dislike the way he delivers the recitativo at the beginning of his final big scene sounding as if he is constantly on the brink of bursting into tears; there are better ways to suggest deep, desperate emotion than sounding like a petulant thirteen-year-old. Collectors will probably be familiar with him only because he replaced Franco Corelli in EMI’s recording of La fanciulla del West with Birgit Nilsson (and she, too, was a replacement for Maria Callas who was to be paired with Tito Gobbi as Jack Rance – imagine!) where he is heard to considerable advantage compared with this live showing. Margreta Elkins, the third Australian in the cast, is a tremulous Alisa and Joseph Rouleau is a resonant if rather leaden Raimondo but by far the best singing apart from the prima donna comes from tenor Kenneth MacDonald. It should be noted, too, that the opera is disfigured by the standard cuts of the era, including the complete excision of the Wolf’s Crag scene which should open Act 3, so some twenty minutes of music is lost.

However, all of that is of very secondary significance compared with the preservation of Sutherland’s first Lucia. She was not yet La Stupenda – that title came after triumph in Venice as Alcina – but her singing is already stupendous. Her characterisation deepened over the next decade and her top Ds and E’s became, if anything, easier but here is the performance which stunned the operatic establishment and wowed the opera-going public. The centre-piece of this recording is of course her Mad Scene, where her vocalisation is purer, more vulnerable and innocent than in later recordings; despite the power of her voice, she really does sound like a teenage bride which is not often the case with exponents of this role. The fleetness of her coloratura runs is astonishing, and her diction is clearer, too, than was later the case. Of course, some goon has to be the first to yell “Bravo” almost before her top E concluding the flute duet has died away but the audience’s enthusiasm for what they are hearing is understandable.

Another great advantage is the conducting of veteran Tullio Serafin, who sounds in no way lethargic or tentative, despite being in his early 80’s. He controls everything expertly, introducing pleasing nuances in dynamics and injecting plenty of life into proceedings, aided by an enthusiastic chorus.

A better bet might be Pristine’s remastering into Ambient Stereo of Sutherland’s 1961 performance at the Met (review) which is just as exciting and has a superior cast but of course that is not the sensational historical debut we get on this Covent Garden release.

Ralph Moore

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