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Joan Sutherland (soprano)
In Performance 1957-1960
Donizetti’s Emilia di Liverpool & Scenes and Arias by Donizetti, Verdi, Handel & Bellini
ADD mono
CAMEO CLASSICS CC9133 [68:58 + 45:46]

This double CD release presents the young Joan Sutherland in a rare Donizetti opera broadcast well before her Covent Garden breakthrough as Lucia and a compilation of bel canto arias recorded during and shortly after that event.

Emilia di Liverpool was written for Naples in 1824 then revised in 1828 as L'eremitaggio di Liwerpool where it premiered and ran for only six performances. The original 1824 version was revived for a further three performances in 1838 and a final outing in 1871, only to lie dormant until this abridged radio version was broadcast from Liverpool in 1957. The performance here is in fact mostly the 1828 version, and should therefore more properly be entitled L'eremitaggio di Liwerpool. It has previously been issued by Myto but without the narration referred to below. In 1986, the Opera Rara label recorded both the 1824 and 1828 versions on three expensive CDs – but you may sample it on YouTube. I refer you to Robert Farr’s extensive review of that recording for his assessment of it, a plot synopsis and much useful background information.

Given that Liverpool is 220 miles from London and the nearest proper mountains are probably on Snowdonia, 80 miles away, the preface to the action raises a smile: “The action takes place in the mountains just outside Liverpool, not many leagues distant from London” – but that is of no real importance. Joint-editor of the score Fritz Spiegl provides a brief, wry introduction and mispronounces, with an initial soft “ch” as in “church” rather than a hard “c” as in “cat”, the name of the author of the frankly absurd libretto, Checcherini.

The secco recitativo has been mostly cut and the original spoken dialogue in Neapolitan dialect written for the resident buffo bass has been replaced by a humorous narrative, written and delivered by the celebrated character actor and life peer Bernard Miles, and the arias and ensembles have been trimmed, so that the duration of the whole opera has been reduced to under an hour. The fact that both the introduction and the narrative are arch and mocking in manner makes it more difficult for the listener to approach the music seriously, especially as the tone of the work, being “semiserio” is ambivalent. Matters are not helped by some of the soloists; much of the singing is distinctly provincial. Denis Dowling, for example, who has the most to do after Sutherland, has an unpleasant, tremulous bleat to his baritone and sings out of tune, and the chorus are distinctly G & S after a couple of gins-and-tonic. Be prepared, too, for some dim sound, anglicised Italian and music which is hardly top-drawer Donizetti, often sounding more like run-of-the-mill Rossini, while the ensemble in track 9 is a pure pastiche of the end of Act 1 of Così fan tutte. I know April Cantelo to be a fine singer but neither she nor the capable tenor William McAlpine has much to do; it is only when Joanie opens her mouth that we hear singing of really stellar quality and are instantly transported into another dimension. Her music is not actually that striking but the ease, dexterity and amplitude of the singing are stupendous. She soars up to a huge E flat in the duet “Vive il padre” in track 10, drowns out her co-singers and makes light of all challenges. Her technique is already completely in place and her diction is as clear as the large, rounded sound she makes, permits. Her last aria is a pyrotechnical rondo Donizetti borrowed from his 1826 opera Alahor in Granata; Sutherland incorporates two flicked high Es into her flawless ornamentation then caps the aria with a thrilling, sustained top E. As it is some of the better music we hear, that borrowing should surely have been acknowledged.

In many ways, there is more interest and reward in the ensuing anthology of arias, as the music is superior and we listen only to Sutherland in her youthful pomp. Half of the eight arias here are from Lucia di Lammermoor and they reveal no surprises here for anyone already familiar with her art at this early stage of her career. The listener is immediately drawn into her world of fantastical vocalism, regardless of the slightly alienating effect of the remote mono sound. We hear two live accounts of the same aria recorded fifteen months apart; the singing in both is superb, but the second is conducted in a much dreamier, more leisurely fashion by Sir Malcolm Sargent than George Hurst’s niftier, more precise manner, as the timings prove. Sutherland’s voice sounds as if it has grown bigger and richer, too; deservedly thunderous applause breaks into the end of the aria. The aria from I vespri siciliani is a rarer treat but Sutherland’s diamantine singing of it makes us realise to what degree Verdi melded the style of Spanish bolero with bel canto tropes – and another concluding high E is a stunner. Handel’s Alcina was of course another real springboard for her international career and her singing of the two arias is sheer bliss; did Handel ever write a more beguiling tune than “Di’, cor mio, quanto t’amai”? The Mad Scene tracks serve as a reminder of the impact of Sutherland’s famous first stage performances of Lucia at Covent Garden and the concluding Bellini item, where at times the cliché “time stands still”, such is the beauty and power of her singing, really does seem to apply, putting the seal on a collection of some of the most enchanting singing of the repertoire ever committed to posterity.

Ralph Moore

Donizetti: Emilia di Liverpool, dramma semiserio – an opera in two Acts (abridged) (1828) [57:48]
tracks 1-12
Cast details:
Emilia: Joan Sutherland (soprano); Candida, Emilia’s companion/Bettina, Count Asdrubale’s niece: April Cantelo (soprano); Colonel Tompson (alias Villars): William McAlpine (tenor); Count Asdrubale, a Neapolitan nobleman: Hervey Alan (bass); Claudio di Liverpool, Emilia’s father: Denis Dowling (baritone)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/John Pritchard
Singers of the Liverpool Music Group
rec. live radio broadcast 8 September 1957, Liverpool.

Scenes & Arias:
Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
13. Regnava nel silenzio...Quando rapito in estasi [7:47]
Verdi: I vespri siciliani
14. Merce, dilette amiche [3:23]
London Symphony Orchestra/George Hurst
rec. live radio broadcast 24 May 1959, BBC Studios
Handel: Alcina, HWV34
1. Di’, cor mio, quanto t'amai [6:33]
2. Tornami a vagheggiar [5:01]
Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
3. Regnava nel silenzio...Quando rapito in estasi [8:55]
The BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent
rec. live radio broadcast,1 August 1960, BBC Promenade Concert, Royal Albert Hall
4. Mad Scene Part 1 [12:52]
5. Mad Scene Part 2 [4:33]
Covent Garden Orchestra & Chorus/Tullio Serafin
rec. live 26 February 1959, Royal Opera House
Bellini: I puritani
6. O rendetemi la speme…Qui la voce sua soave…Vien, diletto [7:50]
London Symphony Orchestra/Basil Cameron
rec. live 1 August 1960, BBC Promenade Concert, Royal Albert Hall

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