Joan Sutherland: The Art of the Prima Donna
Thirty years on, and one might well fear that the critical excesses of (relative) youth will have to be expiated at last. Was this recital really as marvellous as some of us thought at the time in spite of the reservations of our elders and betters? And does it stand now, as subsequent comparisons have tended to suggest, not so much as the early work of a great singer in the making, but rather as containing much of the material by which her achievements as a singer can be most favourably judged?
The issue now on mid-price CD presents an opportunity for revaluation, and I must say that in its light my own answers to both questions are strongly affirmative. Its merits include all of the expected qualities—the exceptional purity of tone, the brilliant fluency, the fullness and freedom on high—as well as others that seem to have passed unappreciated in earlier days. The scenes are characterized: not merely 'sung with expression' but actually in character, so that the artist's identity changes from one item to another, if not exactly as with a wave of Callas's magic wand, at least a good deal more completely and convincingly than most of the singers whose operatic recitals have come before us recently. Norma's admonitions are delivered by quite another character than the one who gave the bright Seraphim their orders; the ''vergin vezzosa'' of Puritani has a pretty vulnerability that is distinct from the wistful girhshness of Juliette at her first ball and Ophelie's misty bewilderment is different again. The Queen who sings dreamily of Touraine is not the Mantuan girl who lovingly repeats the dear, fictitious name of Gualtier Malde. Desdemona's anxiety, Constanze's determination, Marguerite's wonderment, are all real presences here as are the scales, trills, staccatos and other anticipated accomplishments. Rather less happily, the second question is also justified. In later years came the droopy portamentos, the dull vowels, the hazy line, and eventually the loosening tone; and generally (not always) when comparisons can be made with later recordings the version here is found to be preferable. But there, we knew it at the time. If Sutherland, for some reason, had decided to make no more records after this album, her place among the great would still have been assured. Two further points: one, in spite of all this, the recordings do less than justice because they hardly suggest to someone who did not hear Sutherland in those years just how ample, house-filling a voice it was, and two, how well the clarity of CD brings out the rumble of underground trains in the Queen's cadenza and what sounds like a yell from the squash-courts in Violetta's ''croce e delizia''.'