Monday 18 October 2010

Joan Sutherland

My history with Joan Sutherland is one of more missed opportunities than stunning performances.

I first saw her perform live at a recital, with Richard Bonynge at the piano, at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in the 1970's. She looked very memorable, wearing what appeared to be a wrap-around, lime green dressing gown. And there was certainly no question over her technique, nor the ability to fill the Free Trade Hall with personality. The problem was that what we really wanted to hear was her operatic repertoire and the selection of Italian songs seemed to be very definitely second choice. In my memory, the only time that the evening really came alive was when she sang a selection from Offenbach's La Perichole.

Until 1981 I lived out of London (in Manchester and then in Scotland) and failed to get tickets for the Sutherland performances (such as her Maria Stuarda) that I tried to attend, though truth to tell, I probably didn't try too hard. So this means that the first time I heard La Stupenda in an opera was in 1983 when she sang the title role in Massenet's Esclarmonde. By 1983 Sutherland was in her late 50's, and not really in her prime. The performance was compromised by a security alert, when we all had to troop out of the opera house, mid-act. So if the performance was less than inspiring, there were mitigating circumsances. And, of course, Esclarmonde is hardly one of Massenet's strongest operas.

The final time I saw her was in Anna Bolena, also at Covent Garden in 1988. This was far stronger, both the role and the music seemed far more aligned to Sutherland's strengths at the period. Though we had to put up with a rather strange interval disposition, possibly to help the ageing diva.

Perhaps I should have gone to see one of her late Lucias at Covent Garden, which all got good reviews. But I was wary of hearing a soprano in the latter end of her career in such a role, preferring the Sutherland recorded in her prime to the live version in later years. Now, of course, I regret the decision greatly. That said, I still find it difficult to tie up some of the glowing reviews from her late career, with the actual sound I heard both live (in 1988) and from broadcasts.

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