The Age of Bel Canto
Starting with “The Art of the Prima Donna” in 1960, Decca presented their star soprano in a series of double-album excursions into what was then rare repertory. “Command Performance”, “Romantic French Arias”, “Love Live Forever” and finally a three-disc recital with Richard Bonynge at the piano (“Serate Musicali”) all provided a rich survey of bel canto singing. The reissue of “The Age of Bel Canto” in its original form (just Sutherland’s contributions were on a single CD five years ago), confirms that with the added stimulus of Marilyn Horne’s presence (this was their first recording together) and the contribution from Richard Conrad, of all the recitals, this is the most exciting.
Thirty years and more on, one has to remember that when this set first came out, there had been no complete recordings of Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda or La straniera, Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia or Rossini’s Semiramide. For the majority of the record-listening public these were great rarities. As for the arias and duets from operas by Piccini, Lampugnani, Bononcini, Arne, Shield and Boieldieu, they remain almost as recherche now as they were then.
Sutherland is in fantastic voice throughout. There is a bit of the ‘drooping’ mannerism that was so savagely criticized at the time, but in retrospect, like the Callas wobble, one accepts this as part of Sutherland’s individual style. The opening “Furia di donna” from Piccini’s La buona figliuola, shows the wonderful facility she had for singing staccato-in-legato, every note clear and precise but joined in a seamless stream of sound. And the words are clear, the fury of the irate heroine perfectly characterized. It is a great tribute to Richard Conrad’s singing that the succeeding track, “Care selve” from Handel’s Atalanta, isn’t a jolt; he opens it with a very convincing trill. Of course, compared with the two great ladies, his voice is a fragile instrument, but as Bonynge writes in his introduction, “coloratura tenors were almost unheard of” in the 1960s. The longest track on the set is the duet from La straniera, not one of Bellini’s greatest melodies, but one of those fascinating ‘might have beens’, for Sutherland never undertook the role. Both she and Conrad impress with their fervour.
Horne, at the beginning of her recording career, was already a seasoned performer. “Iris, hence away” from Semele, the drinking song from Lucrezia Borgia, her duet with Sutherland from Semiramide (perhaps a shade less spectacular than on the complete recording, Decca, 2/90) and above all the final, dizzy Arditi Bolero remain among her best records. From the eighteenth-century items on the first CD, Sutherland’s “Light as thistledown” from Shield’s Rosina and Conrad’s elegant account of “Ich baue ganz” from Entfuhrung are especially pleasing. Sutherland was never happy with the role of the Queen of Night in Die Zauberflote, and although her German isn’t too bad, one can hear that the music doesn’t sit well for her.
There are too many delightful and intriguing items to detail; suffice to say that this set includes two examples of singing that would demonstrate to anyone who wanted to find out, exactly why Sutherland was such a sensation. The trio from Boieldieu’s Angela, “Ma Fanchette est charmante” has a brilliance and lightness of touch from all three singers that makes one quite breathless. Then there is the famous account of Odabella’s aria from Act 1 of Verdi’s Attila, “Santo di patria”. Sutherland’s dramatic attack in this, her security throughout its great leaps and soaring phrases, and the sheer force of the sound, make this one of the very few records that to me accurately conveys the impact her voice made in public. The recording engineers were Arthur Bannister and Arthur Lilley, with producer Christopher Raeburn – it can’t have been an easy task to contain Sutherland’s voice, or to balance it with such a delicate instrument as Richard Conrad’s.
Both orchestras under Bonynge rise to the challenge as well; throughout, the accompaniments have such a sense of style, and the programme moves fluidly from one era to another. Bonynge here provides one with a rich lesson in what happened to opera and singing during the century or more that the survey charts (roughly from 1730 to 1850). The sound is vintage Decca. Congratulations to all concerned for reinstating this set, with its photographs, texts and translations all in place. A great classic of the gramophone.'