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Commentary

Joan Sutherland
13 Oct 2010

Joan Sutherland: My Starter Diva

I was sixteen and knew nothing about opera, had just seen my first Traviata at the City Opera (Patricia Brooks, Placido Domingo), was entranced by the melodies — especially the Brindisi and “Sempre libera” — and wanted more.

Joan Sutherland: My Starter Diva

By John Yohalem

 

It is typical of my relationship to the zeitgeist that just as the world succumbed to the joys of the steady back beat, I fell completely in love with voluptuous melody.

I had long loved the tunes of Arthur Sullivan (whose mother was Italian), but bel canto promised a far richer trove. I went to E.J. Korvette’s (remember Korvette’s?) and looked for some likely-looking Verdi. A display offered three new compilation disks (tracks snipped from earlier recordings): Bellini, Handel, Verdi, arias sung by a lady waltzing grandly across the front cover in great swirling swaths of black tulle. I’d never heard of Bellini, associated Handel with chorales. Verdi was the man. The lady’s name was Joan Sutherland. “She’s good; my parents like her,” said my best friend, who was advising me.

Oh, was she good! Oh were the melodies sumptuous (“Ernani, involami”; “Santo di patria”; “Caro nome”; the Bolero from Vespri), and the voice every bit the same, clear as spring water, soaring up and down the scales by clear steps, fast or slow as you like, each tone ravishing, the trills so precise you could distinguish two separate notes, the runs sung just as they were written, the high E-flats in alt brilliant but never shrill. And since it was all in a language I didn’t know, the diction seemed just dandy to me.

Sutherland was the ideal Starter Diva because so much of what she did was technique, on the surface. Once you knew the repertory, you might long for more pathos in a Desdemona, more fire in a raging Luisa Miller, more brooding in a Violetta … but if you were after flawless sound, flawless technique, she was it. I urge tyros not to start with Callas, because the voice’s flaws will irritate you and until you understand the repertory, you won’t understand what she’s doing. Callas did a lot, but much of it was subtle. Sutherland could be subtle, but technically, not dramatically.

I became obsessed as only an adolescent desperate to stave off the sex urge (I knew it was going to be trouble) can be. I bought all her recordings and thirsted for more. The melodies of Alcina and Lucia and Puritani still carry me back to those dizzy, fantastic days; when music was so much more real to me than academics or personal relationships or anything else in my life. In dull high school classes (which was nearly all of them), I would keep myself awake by writing sonnets to Joan. Some of them were acrostics, spelling out her name. All of them were terrible (though when I sent them to her, she charmingly overlooked that fact).

I read her biography, the first one, which made her out to be an unpretentious, unsophisticated, hardworking Australian girl, guided by a clever Svengali husband and a bunch of tough teachers to display her exceptional gifts, fend off terrible health problems, and renew repertory long thought dead. The story was like a Hollywood film, far too good to be true. Later biographies and unauthorized rumors presented a different woman: down to earth, yes, but determined to get to the top if talent and hard work could take her there, very conscious of just who she was and how important to opera, the recording industry and Australia’s self-image, loving a laugh but with no sympathy for the lazy. Ambition and hard work and a firm set of the chin makes more sense than the modest maiden pushed to the forefront. She knew she was remarkable. She knew she wasn’t Lily Pons or Callas, but she was Joan Sutherland. (It is absurd to ask, as mediocre reporters always do, Who is the new Callas? The new Pavarotti? The new Sutherland? The new Horne? The great artists are always unique — therefore, catch them while you can.)

But let’s go back to my first exposure to the Sutherland instrument live and in person. I had written another sonnet and brought a dozen roses. And four albums for signature. But would I have the nerve to go backstage with them? The place: Carnegie Hall, the occasion American Opera Society’s presentation of Haydn’s Orfeo ed Euridice (aka L’anima del filosofo), with Nicolai Gedda as Orfeo, and Sutherland increasing her exposure by copping the bravura aria of a Spirit in Act II. Like Marcel on first seeing the actress Berma, I found it difficult to reconcile my anticipations with the superb but somehow alien occasion. The music was very odd: a chorus of Maenads tore Orfeo to pieces (following the myth, as Gluck does not), but they were Haydn Maenads — imagine a maddened horde of Dresden china shepherdesses. And yes, I got up the nerve to go backstage where I couldn’t think of a thing to say.

A year later, at the Met, in more comprehensible circumstances, a pair of Sonnambulas back to back — but I was not ready to understand Bellini, though many authorities (including her husband) think the simple, naïve Amina is Sutherland’s best characterization. There was a song recital in Newark, with “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls” and “Home, Sweet Home” among the encores — the latter drew titters from the hall. Sutherland might really have been happier as a Victorian grande dame, invited to Windsor for the occasional recital.

There was an all-Handel concert at Hunter. In the second half, she came out to sing “Ombre pallide” from Alcina and couldn’t locate the music. Bonynge and the orchestra waited patiently. She turned the pages left, she turned them right. Nervous giggling began among the crowd. The usually bland face was suddenly expressive to a degree, deepening worry, maintaining cool, Aussie housewife “now where did I leave that casserole?” And suddenly, like sun breaking through clouds, relief burst out upon her features and we broke into laughter and applause. She was very communicative — just not in the artificial arena of the theater.

Backstage after that concert (I’d brought a new sonnet and four more albums to be signed — I thought it rude to bring more than four) someone had a recording of Haydn’s Orfeo for her signature. “Oooh, you pirates!” she cried, shaking a finger. But she signed.

A word on her acting: No, she was not a stage animal. As her biographies make clear, she had to force herself to learn to do all that stuff, and she needed careful coaching. Once she had the thing down, though, she had it down — she could do it walking in her sleep — and I mean Lucia or Traviata, not just Amina. But if anything went wrong, she had no idea how to fix it. Either you are the sort who is comfortable on the stage and can ad lib with no trouble, or you are not. It can’t be learned. Sills could improvise, live the role. Sutherland could not. Too, I don’t think her earthy sense of self could quite get the hang of being the loveliest princess in the world, her face dazzling tenors into transports and baritones into skullduggery. She was happier in comedies, making fun of herself, as in La Fille du Regiment — a very Australian trait.

Many’s the time I’ve seen her do something, and thought, “Whatever you do up there, don’t do that!” only to have her — do just that.

There was the Esclarmonde where the director and designer had set her up (she didn’t even have to sing, just stand there) as a Byzantine icon, worshipped by the chorus and Massenet’s incense-like music. But she had to remain veiled (because if a man saw her, she’d lose her magical powers — you know, opera as usual), and the veil was somehow awry. So what? But she couldn’t stop fiddling with the veil. We were all staring (the staging led all our eyes) at her supposedly immobile, dignified, iconic figure, and she couldn’t stop finicking with the goddam veil. All she had to do was not do anything at all. But this did not occur to her.

There was the Trovatore in San Francisco — her first essay at that role, which was not one of her great ones. She had her costumier run up her own costumes, as usual, distrusting house designers. (“What’s wrong with our costume?” wailed a Met flak once. “It’s cheap and vulgar,” said Joan. “Vulgar perhaps, but cheap never!” he replied.) Joan’s costumier apparently thought Trovatore was set in the eighteenth century; in fact, it’s the early fifteenth, and the rest of the costumes reflected this. Too, they were all in blues or browns or a touch of orange. But not Joan: she was in a huge pink farthingale. She did add tremendously to the realism of the second performance (I thought) by remembering to unlock Manrico’s prison before throwing the door wide open. But that was not the moment I best remember from that rather dreary Trovatore. The big moment of shudder that night came during Pavarotti’s “Ah si, ben mio.” The director had him to one side, facing outwards, with Sutherland’s back to us, listening to his every ardent syllable. And she did that. But as she turned towards him, she trod on her long pink underskirt. It was going to be tough to move out of that awkward position, so, imagining that our attention was focused entirely on Luciano’s golden phrases, she took advantage of the quiet to kick the skirt out from under her dress — unaware that, in that lighting and against that brown background, her pink bustled bum was the most eye-catching object in the house, and her every gesture in it was being shoved into our faces.

Then there was her Lakmé in Philadelphia. Joan, playing the lovely daughter of the bloodthirsty Hindu high priest but got up to resemble the Rock of Gibraltar as, I assume, a tribute to the majesty of the British Empire, sang the piss out of the Bell Song and was rewarded with minute after minute of hysteria. On and on it went, longer than the aria. And she was on her knees, and no doubt they were unhappy. At last she looked at us and broke tableau with a gesture: “Oh calm it down, girls,” she might almost have been saying. “It’s just me, you know, and I’m not going to sing it again.” We laughed. She was a pal. It was her moment. Victoria de los Angeles, observing Sutherland on TV, once remarked, “You just look at her and you know she would be such a chum.”

And then there was her final Lucia at the Met — the one captured on video. This is unfortunate, as there was (at nearly sixty) a marked falling off. She lowered the Mad Scene a step, for one thing. For another, where in earlier years (I first saw her sing it in 1970 and 1971), she had run the hundred-yard dash in and out all over the stage, all while tossing off flawless runs and leaps and trills and variations, in 1985 (was it?) she could only manage about twenty yards of dash. I was in standing room for the first two acts, but as the curtain came down on the sextet (remember when they did the sextet properly, with no stupid photographer to mess it up?), a young couple with, no doubt, suburban trains to catch leaped up from seats in Row B on the aisle and raced to the exit. I got there first, and they gave me their tickets. So there I sat for the Mad Scene with my friend Maaike beside me, marveling at how well Joan acted as well as sang a part she had performed over three hundred times at that point.

Then came the moment. She was staring at us, eyes demented, prepared to sweep down and roulade us to death. And her shawl slipped from her shoulders. Out of character, she looked down, hoisted it to one shoulder, then to the other, then back to look at us, ready to sing, in character — demented. Maaike muttered, “Oh God.” Indeed, theatrical tension has seldom been so entirely dispelled.

I said to Maaike later, “You don’t understand. This is what proves Sutherland is a major actress! If Callas or Sills had dropped the shawl, they’d have let the shawl go hang, and we’d never have seen them kick it away. But Sutherland instinctively realizes that to a really madwoman, dropping your shawl is just as significant as stabbing your groom 29 times on the wedding night. They are equally momentous in her eyes! Sutherland has equated them. She has made Lucia real!” No, I didn’t believe that, but I was very proud of concocting it and have used the story many times as an example of how a true opera devotee will defend his diva against all probability and all sanity.

Perhaps the most impressive feat I’ve ever seen on any stage also involved Sutherland. She sang four Rigolettos at the Met in June, 1972; I got to two of them. Ruggiero Raimondi as Sparafucile awed me then and forever by carrying a sack on his shoulder, a sack containing Joan and while singing lowered it gently to the stage it so that Sherill Milnes (not even trying to lift it) could haul it down front, kick it a few times, and out popped Joan, trilling away. At the later performance, Ivo Vinco sang Sparafucile. He had an attendant ruffian with him to carry the sack.

All right enough about her mediocre stage sense. Let’s talk about the voice. It was a cool instrument — another nickname she earned on her Italian debut (La Stupenda is the one everybody’s heard) was “La Callas fredda” — cold Callas. On my personal color scale, which runs from a voluptuous red (Tebaldi) or blood-orange (Leontyne Price) or purple (Caballé) or red-purple (Troyanos) to white-hot (Rysanek) or runny yellow-green (Sills), Sutherland is among the “blue” sopranos — which has nothing to do with “blues” in the pop sense of the term. (Ella Fitzgerald had a blue voice, but Billie Holiday had a blues voice, which is very different.) Diana Damrau is blue. Mirella Freni is blue-ish. Karita Mattila is ice blue. Regine Crespin was deep blue shading to violet. Sutherland was true blue (like the Garter ribbon). There is a coolness here that can take on the passion in the music but does not inject passion where the music lacks it, could possibly use it.

There were two or three Sutherland voices with the passing of time. I call these the Silver voice and the Golden voice and (after 1981) the droopy voice. When Sutherland made her first recordings in the late fifties and early sixties (Emilia di Liverpool, the first recital (with her perfect “O luce di quest’ anima”), the first Lucia and Rigoletto, The Art of the Prima Donna, her voice sounded smaller than it was, bell-like as the canary sopranos of old but truer because more firmly grounded in dramatic soprano technique. (Callas, too, learned her amazing flexibility after dramatic training, and it shows in the guts she could bring to Anna Bolena or Il Pirata. Ditto Caballé, who like the other two ladies thought she was destined for dramatic soprano-dom.) Well, fluttery has its place (Zerbinetta, Philine, Olympia), but I like to feel, to hear, that the glorious façade rests on sturdy foundations.

The silver voice, the airy flights, the easy passagework faded after a vocal crisis around 1962. By1963, when she recorded her first Norma and Traviata, and 1964, when she recorded Command Performance and Alcina, the silver voice was gone forever. In its place was what I call her Golden voice: molten honey caressing the line. She could still do ornaments to make anyone gasp (the first Puritani and Semiramide), but the flavor is different. It is a tribute to her skill (and Bonynge’s coaching) that so little was lost, that her ability to race through the notes was so little affected. But she had to re-learn everything in her repertory, and while it sounded good, even great, it did not sound the same. She could no longer be a girl — she was always a woman.

An old obnoxious opera friend, Stan Cohen, the sort who disparage almost everything and insult you for daring to have a differing opinion, used to say, “You should have heard Sutherland in the sixties! The chances she took! The perfection!” Happily, pirates of those Puritanis and Semiramides and Donna Annas do survive. Security was important to her, and she never took a high note and didn’t make it (if she didn’t think she had it, she’d transpose it). Her days of triumph were incredible. The story goes that after she first sang Norma in the U.S., in Philadelphia, Monsterrat Caballé came backstage to rave about the performance. Joan said, “Ah, but after you sing it, they won’t come to hear me sing it.” Caballé, flabbergasted (and she’s no blushing violet), replied, without thinking, “Oh I could never sing it. I don’t have the high notes.” “You don’t need them!” laughed Joan. “They’re not in the score!” Indeed, she was the first soprano ever to sing “Casta diva” in the original key, Bellini having lowered it for Giuditta Pasta before the premiere.

Such chances indeed: In Traviata, she used to toss off the elaborate Tetrazzini variation to the end of “Sempre libera,” which is not exactly true to the dramatic situation (Violetta is hysterical, yes, but also emotionally exhausted) but sure is an impressive bit of vocalism. She didn’t make a big thing out of it; she just sang it for sheer fun, to give us a memorable thrill.

I heard Sutherland’s Norma at the Met in 1970, twice in the spring and twice in the fall, with Horne three times, Cossotto once. She did it in four acts rather than two, and the production was as ugly as most Norma productions tend to be. The fourth Norma was a surprise, an event. We settled in for the prelims and the Druids’ march (has it ever been more rumpty-tum than in Bonynge’s hands? But nothing can save that silly march) and then Joan singing another perfect “Casta diva,” oh ho-hum. In fact, since that day, I have heard it sung perfectly by only two other sopranos, Montserrat Caballé and my friend Ann Donaldson. Sutherland and Caballé made Norma seem so easy that, losing their traditional wary respect for the role, all sorts of ladies with no business doing so attempted Norma and faced varying levels of opprobrium for it: Rita Hunter, Renata Scotto, Shirley Verrett, Jane Eaglen, even Sills. But only dimly did I guess back then how lucky I was. (Callas fans were livid. A lapel button frequent at the Met: “Sutherland is Chlotilda” — the confidante role Sutherland had sung to Callas years before.)

And then, that fourth “Casta diva,” came a surprise: As she rose to that first D in alt (ah-ah, ah-ah, ah-ah, ah-ah, AH) — she blew the note. Shock rippled through the house. Sutherland blew a note! This had never happened. Every other singer, sure. Don’t stop the presses. Some of them made whole careers out of it. But not Sutherland!

What it felt like was someone climbing a flagpole, only to find the ball at the top has been greased. She went for it — and over the top and down the other side. Except she pulled herself up short and tried again — and went back over the other side, wobbling about, trying to find the secure seat — at the top of a greased flagpole. No one would be surprised if a singer panicked at this point, but Sutherland was all pro, no panic. She held herself steady in that precarious position. And a strange thing happened in the orchestra, where we assumed Bonynge could do nothing but beat time: He did have control, and he exercised it now, and the orchestra abruptly were playing twice as slowly as before — as if reaching out a steadying arm to guide the soprano down the flow of arpeggios to the end of the verse. And this was just the first verse.

Let us imagine her feelings at this point: The voice is not in perfect control and another verse of “Casta diva” must be sung, and every one of the four thousand people present is at seat’s edge and wide awake, not believing what they were hearing, aghast to hear more. You could have heard a pin drop or a bracelet rattle — but no pins dropped and no bracelets rattled in all the house.

And, a little bit slower, a little bit more carefully, she sang the second verse and, as the chorus joined in, ascended the mountain of fioritura to the climactic D. And sang the most flawless verse of “Casta diva” that has ever been sung — since Ponselle anyway — maybe since Malibran (who transposed it). It was a perfect feat of singing, each note a rounded outsize pearl the same size and texture as each other note, the evenness that was the bel canto singer’s ideal in each phrase — to the swift descending chromatic scale without a note smudged that concludes the hymn. Bid set, made and won. If it had been anyone but Joan, you’d almost suspect her of doing it on purpose just to get us to pay closer attention, but she never went in for that kind of swank. (Of Scotto, I’d believe it.) And only complete coolth, complete professionalism could have brought it off.

Bonynge usually tried to suppress applause after arias and hurry on to present the succeeding cabaletta as part of a unity, but that night he laid down his baton and sat back while we roared for quite some time. Only then did Joan, clearly feeling her oats, throw herself into two ornamented verses of the delicious cabaletta. Not exactly introspective on this occasion, but who cared? It was an occasion. We were thrilled to be there.

And we suddenly realized why she insisted on having her husband in the pit: She was scared. She had made a lot of recordings, her fans knew them well. She was beginning to be unsure she could compete with studio perfection. She needed all the support she could get. It is a problem faced by every recorded artist. We used to mutter that Ricky selfishly insisted he be part of her contract package, but I don’t believe this was true: A letter in the Met Archives from the management — evidently of my mind — asked Bonynge if he’d mind his wife singing a performance with another conductor on a date when he was obliged to be out of town. He replied that he’d no objection at all, but he didn’t think she’d do it.

Act II of that famous Norma, by the way, ended with one of those interpolated high notes Sutherland placed in the score, ending (in this case) the tremendously exciting trio Bellini had composed. (Angela Meade sang it in her Caramoor Normas last summer.) I was seated in the top row of the Family Circle, a fathom and a furlong from the stage. The kid next to me shocked me by attending the opera in a see-through shirt (or maybe I just envied him his skinny torso). When that note, solid on its flawless breath control came out at us, building and building and building and then at the peak of our endurance (we were all holding our breaths), abruptly descended to the tonic to end the act, the chest of the kid in the see-through shirt expanded until it nearly burst through, he seemed to be having some sort of seizure, and only when Joan let her breath out did he collapse, spent (in some way or other), into a huddle in his seat. I forgave so responsive a music-lover his bêtise of dress.

The mid-seventies were a difficult time for New York opera-goers. Eternal verities were challenged. Rudolf Bing may have been idiosyncratically out of date (he adored obscure Verdi, but he never took bel canto seriously), but at least he had been in charge. After he left, in 1972, for a dozen years no one seemed to be in charge. Deals were done and undone and many chances missed. Sutherland brought her Fille du Regiment from Covent Garden to the Met with the Pav (and, later, Alfredo Kraus), and it was a triumph — she loved to cut up on stage — and then a gorgeous Puritani in 1976 with a starry cast, the Pav, Milnes and James Morris, to back her up. Puritani is a long night; at the prima she looked frankly exhausted; by the last one, she was having fun and tossing the roses that had been thrown to her back among the audience (after giving one to Pav and one to Ricky to be sure). Then there was the Hoffmann in (yet another) new edition, where her Olympia had big painted pink roses on her cheeks, her Giulietta descended from the top of the stage to the bottom in a suspended gondola against a watery backdrop, and her expiring Antonia was loud enough to wake a sanitarium.

Then, for some reason, she quarreled with the powers running the Met. They asked her to sing Konstanze in Mozart’s Seraglio, and though Mozart was not a great composer for her (though her Donna Anna on record — made in her Silver era, and under Giulini’s careful control — is superb) she assented, on condition that the Met do her a favor and give her The Merry Widow. She had the production already; they’d only have to rent it. It may or may not have been a mistaken idea, but the operetta works in the Met, as Frederica von Stade and Placido Domingo proved some years later. The Met was unwilling to trust her. I’m not sure what the third opera in this package was to have been — perhaps Luisa Miller or Ernani, but I was hoping for Semiramide or Les Huguenots or Lucrezia Borgia — but instead three or four years passed with no Sutherland at all, and this was the more to be regretted because she went through another vocal crisis around 1980. Another soprano of equal success might have retired at this point, but for whatever reasons — she was used to acclaim, a hard taste to renounce — she went on. And it wasn’t the same. There were roles she should not have sung, second recordings that did not match the first ones, a few trainwrecks.

Opera lovers who began to attend in the eighties and were only going by what they heard (as is natural) scowled at Sutherland. She was so unconvincing an actress — a thing that had always been important but was becoming more so in a televised generation. Callas, lately dead, was now deified, and if Sutherland surpassed her in vocal gift, she never pretended to match her in dramatic instinct. She had worshipped Callas, but she never imitated her — and she was right not to try.

Over the years, I heard Sutherland in several concerts and galas and in fourteen complete operas: the Haydn Orfeo, Bellini’s Sonnambula, Norma and Puritani (no one but Joan ever got new productions of all three out of the Met), Donizetti’s Lucia, Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena, Massenet’s Esclarmonde, Delibes’s Lakmé, Mozart’s Don Giovanni — alas, not the run with Solti conducting in the late sixties but a decidedly inferior group under Bonynge ten years later — Verdi’s Rigoletto, Trovatore and Traviata, and the four heroines in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann.

The later performances were not up to standard: Anna, Lucia, Leonora, Elvira. She had become, as many of the younger fans sneered, “Moany Joanie.” Her pitch tended to sag below the note, although she could usually rise to a brilliant top. I thought the old mezzo training was coming through nicely, and that with retraining and study of a new repertory, she might have a new career. Her lower register was a cello register, Stradivarius-hued. What an Erda or Favorite she might have been! But why should she bother? She was nearing sixty, she was rich, she had a title, she was the living symbol of Australian never-say-die athleticism in her art.

When Tito Capobianco ran Opera San Diego, made a point one year of hiring Sutherland to sing Rosalinda in Fledermaus when he had already persuaded the soon-to-retire Beverly Sills to sing Adele. The ladies, whose fans were at daggers drawn, had never met, and became great friends instantly. (Sutherland used to sing the Czardas in Hungarian, not that anyone could tell.)

A year or two later, when Sills was director of the City Opera, I ran into them strolling, regally tall, arm in arm, through the promenade of the State Theater. The occasion was the City Opera’s first Alcina, the Handel opera first unearthed for Sutherland. The star was Carol Vaness — and if she was nervous in Sutherland’s presence, she gave no sign of it in a magical performance. Sutherland sat prominently in the first seat in the First Tier, applauding everything heartily — but getting an ovation herself at the beginning of Act III. Her recording of the opera (with a breathtaking supporting cast: Berganza, Freni, Sciutti, Alva, Flagello) seems very old-fashioned today, when we have all learned a great deal more about baroque opera, but the rhythms are sprightly and the vocalism sensational. It is an adorable document.

I kick myself for missing some of Joan’s mid-career performances I could have attended — she’d given up Handel (those original Alcinas must have been astonishing), but I could have seen her in Beatrice di Tenda and Lucrezia Borgia (her video recording of this last, though late, is quite fine) and, most tragically of all, Semiramide, which she sang at the Lyric Opera of Chicago when I, who had never been west of Pennsylvania, was too penniless and nervous to risk a trip to so big and bad a city. I had also missed, by a year or so, her concert Semiramide at Carnegie Hall. I’m told she wore a gown of red sequins, shimmering regally, with a white cashmere shawl over her shoulders and bosom in the opening scene. She returned in this getup in the second scene, and as the prelude of her aria, “Bel raggio lusinghier” (“A bright ray of sunshine illuminates my heart”), was played, she let the shawl fall away — revealing that the front of her sequined gown was a glittering sunburst, perfectly synchronized with the text and the explosive showpiece she was about to sing. Let no one doubt she was a diva of the highest order.

I hope her copies of those awful sonnets never turn up.

John Yohalem

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