Bellini La Sonnambula

Author: 
Patrick O'Connor

Bellini La Sonnambula

  • (La) Sonnambula
  • (I) Puritani

The occasion of Dame Joan Sutherland’s seventieth birthday in November 1996 has prompted Decca to reissue these opera sets from the 1960s, all for the first time on CD. The two-disc recital, “The Art of the Prima Donna” has hardly ever been out of the catalogue since 1960, and was previously on two CDs in the Grandi Voci series – now it’s remastered for Classic Sound.
Because she is so closely associated with the bel canto operas of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, it is important to remember that it was partly in eighteenth-century operas that Sutherland achieved her early successes, before that famous Lucia in 1959. She had sung in Le nozze di Figaro, Die Zauberflote, Don Giovanni and Der Schauspieldirektor at Covent Garden, Glyndebourne and in Vancouver, as well as making her mark in Handel’s Alcina and Samson. In 1967 when Sutherland and Bonynge recorded extracts from Bononcini’s Griselda and Graun’s Montezuma, such works were not just rare but mostly unheard of. Both selections are hugely enjoyable, with Sutherland given a unique opportunity in Griselda to act a man’s part, Ernesto, and yes, she does darken her voice somewhat. The title-role is taken by Lauris Elms, who proves to have a dashing technique; there is a duet in which she is joined by Monica Sinclair that has all the panache one associates with Sutherland and Horne at the same time.
In Montezuma it’s nice to hear another souvenir of Elizabeth Harwood, and Sutherland sings an elaborately decorated bravura aria, complete with, I suppose, rather unauthentic flute obbligato. For latter-day early music enthusiasts these performances are probably a bit quaint now, but they were pioneering efforts and Richard Bonynge gets everything moving with great sparkle and charm, as well as period feel. Of the four opera sets this is the one I would recommend especially.
Don Giovanni was one of Sutherland’s first recordings, Donna Anna in the Giulini set, recorded for EMI in 1959. Ten years later she returned to the part for Bonynge’s version. This created something of a sensation when it first came out, as no one had attempted a chamber reading of this opera before. Of course we have now heard all the Mozart-Da Ponte works done on period instruments and with all kinds of different ‘authentic’ approaches. There are currently 36 other recordings of Don Giovanni in the catalogue, so it is enough to say that this one would still get on to the short-list. Gabriel Bacquier is the subtlest Giovanni, every inch the relaxed nobleman playing with fire. Sutherland’s Anna for Giulini was deliberately more ‘girlish’ – as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf revealed in her interviews with JBS last year, Walter Legge encouraged Schwarzkopf to be more shrewish to contrast with Sutherland. Here Pilar Lorengar is a much warmer Elvira and Marilyn Horne an earthy Zerlina – she gets the extra duet with Leporello (the excellent Donald Gramm). Werner Krenn is a very light-voiced Ottavio, and he does some quite daring decorations in “Il mio tesoro”. Bonynge takes some of the recitatives rather slowly, but it is a landmark set in its way, with nothing precious about its attempts at period performance.
La sonnambula was Bonynge’s and Sutherland’s first Bellini recording, although their second version (Decca, 4/87), which has Pavarotti as Elvino, is in better sound. Sutherland’s Amina in the early 1960s was sung with such extraordinary freedom and exuberance that this is the set to have, indeed even now I think it would emerge as the best Sonnambula on disc. It’s no good comparing Sutherland with Callas at this late stage – but it is inevitable where this is concerned, especially as the Elvino, Nicola Monti, also sings the role with Callas on her EMI studio recording (9/86). No Sutherland admirer is going to convert to Callas in this opera, but it is fascinating to find one’s remembered reactions sometimes wrong. (Callas does superb things in the coloratura of “Sovra il sen”, Sutherland is full of dramatic fire in the scene in the inn.)
Sutherland and Bonynge also recorded I puritani twice. The earlier version, reissued here, is a very fine performance, but it was outclassed by their later effort (4/89) – with Pavarotti as Arturo – indeed I think that 1973 I puritani is Sutherland’s supreme achievement in Bellini on disc.
As for “The Art of the Prima Donna”, there cannot be any admirers who haven’t already got this, so for newcomers to Sutherland on disc one can only say – listen and wonder. Her voice, even throughout its range right up to the high E, always keeping its natural quality, is heard at its early fullness. (On her birthday, BBC Radio 3 broadcast some opera excerpts recorded in the early 1950s – it was extraordinary how much thinner her voice sounded then, even though she had roles such as Aida and Agathe in her repertory.) Perhaps the best tracks of all are the first two on the first disc, “The soldier tir’d” from Artaxerxes and “Let the bright seraphim” from Samson, but every track is beautiful. “Casta Diva” – her earliest attempt at it – is certainly her most limpid recording of this prayer, “Bel raggio” from Semiramide has sparkling decorations, quite different from the ones she sang on the complete recording six years later, and the whole thing ends with the Jewel Song from Faust. It was a big voice and sounded at its best in larger theatres; listening to “O beau pays” from Les Huguenots, I could see Sutherland in my mind’s eye, in pale blue silk, as Marguerite de Valois at the Royal Albert Hall in 1968. Despite all the recordings that have come since, I cannot imagine anyone, coming to it for the first time, being disappointed in “The Art of the Prima Donna”.'

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