Joan Sutherland – The Art of the Prima Donna

r-10886939-1505963132-9869.jpeg

So what more can one say about this famous two disc recital? It was recorded in 1960, not long after Dame Joan had enjoyed a spectacular success in Lucia di Lammermoor, in 1959, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She was already 33 and had been a member of the company since 1952, when she had sung Clotilde to Callas’s Norma and the Priestess in Aida. She had sung a wide number of roles there, including Agathe, the Countess, Gilda, Pamina, Eva and even Lady Rich in Gloriana and Jennifer in Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage, but none of these undertakings had prepared anyone for the spectacular success she would have as Lucia, with Serafin, Callas’s mentor, in the pit. The role became her calling card and shortly afterwards she sang it in Paris, at La Scala and at the Met, performances that put her firmly on the map and paved the way for the direction her career would take. Thereafter she concentrated almost exclusively on the bel canto repertoire and many operas were resurrected specifically for her.

Let us try and listen now with fresh ears, as if, for instance, this was the work of a singer new to us today. First impressions would be of the beauty of the voice, the fullness of tone, the ease on high and the way those top notes ring out with brilliance but without a hint of shrillness. We would also notice the rocketing virtuosity and the stunningly accurate coloratura. She also sings with feeling, but the first impressions are definitely vocal. This is an exceptional instrument used with great technical accomplishment. What I don’t think we quite get is a true impression of the size of the voice, which, according to all who heard her in the theatre, was quite exceptional.

Some of the arias (particularly the opening track, Arne’s The soldier tir’d, Handel’s Let the bright Seraphim and Semiramide’s Bel raggio) have become yardsticks against which all subsequent comers might be judged, and almost all the others would no doubt be considered amongst the best versions available. Vocally she has few limitations, though these might include a relative weakness in the lower register. Nor is she ever likely to suddenly throw into relief a word or a phrase and her diction, though a lot better than it was later to become is not particularly clear. We might also note that characterisation is not her strong point. As one aria follows another there is little to distinguish one character from another. We do not get a gallery of different people, as one would with a Callas or a Schwarzkopf.

For many these reservations will not be a problem and of course there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from the purely visceral experience of hearing such a beautiful voice in full bloom tackling with accomplishment a wide range of music. For others, and I would count myself among them, that certain sameness of interpretaion will be a problem and I for one prefer to listen to the recital piecemeal rather than all in one sitting. When listening in sequence, I start out being stunned by the singing but, after a while, my mind starts to wander as one interpretation emerges much the same as the one before. The best arias are, as I intimated above, those in which Sutherland can display her amazing vocal dexterity.

Going back to first impressions, though. There is, as far as I’m aware, nobody singing today who can even approach the accomplishment of what Sutherland achieves here. This two disc set stands as testament to her greatness, before the mannerisms (the poor diction, the mushy middle voice, the droopy partamenti) became apparent and should be in the collection of all those interested in singers and singing.

Leontyne Price – The Prima Donna Collection

 

 

 

 

This four disc set gathers together the five recital albums Leontyne Price made under the title Prima Donna. Each one followed a similar pattern, starting with an aria from the Baroque and finishing with something from the twentieth century. Volumes one, two three and five are presented in the order they were originally released, but, inexplicably, volume four is broken up and its contents scattered randomly amongst the others.  The LPs were recorded in 1966 (volumes one and two), 1970 (volume three), 1978 (volume four) and 1980 (volume five), by which time Price would have been fifty-three. The voice changed quite a bit over this fourteen year period, and the first three discs make for much more comfortable listening than the last two, by which time the voice had thickened, with the middle range more occluded, diction smudged and top notes beginning to sound strained. Having so many of the arias from volume four placed side by side with arias from the first three only serves to accentuate this fact. Having a strained performance of Turandot’s In questa reggia from 1978 follow hot on the heels of her 1966 recording of Depuis le jour, which is lovely, if not particularly idiomatic, only goes to empahasise the point.

It goes without saying that there is some glorious singing in this set. At its peak, which is when the first three volumes were made, the voice was an absolutely gorgeous instrument, secure throughout its range and flexible in fast moving music. The selection of music is also interesting, with well known arias rubbing shoulders with some heard less often, especially in recital.

Price once said,

It’s terrible but you know I just love the sound of my own voice. Sometimes I simply move myself to tears. I suppose I must be my own best fan. I don’t care if that sounds immodest – l feel that all singers must enjoy the sound they make if they’re to have others enjoy it too.

Well it’s an interesting point. Callas famously was the opposite. She hated listening to her own records, because she could only hear the faults. She was always striving for the impossible. Price, on the other hand, sometimes gives the impression that she went into the studio, poured out the glorious sounds, declared herself satisfied and left it at that. There is little that is specific to the music she is singing. Though the musical range is vast the interpretive range is not. There isn’t really that much difference between the way she approaches Purcell and Puccini, Handel and Verdi. This is even more pronounced in the final volume, which is, in any case, the least recommendable of the five. Gilda’s Caro nome is placed next to Isolde’s Liebestod, but Caro nome is laboured with no sense of the young girl’s first awakening to love and the Liebstod has no transfiguring rapture. They have the same voice character and just sound as if the singer had strayed into the wrong repetoire, which indeed she had. This final volume also has on it an ill-advised Casta diva, an aria which, in isolation, she might have made a good stab at in 1966, but which, by 1980, is beyond her. The most successful, and surprising, item on volume five is Queen Elizabeth’s Act I Scene and Prayer from Britten’s Gloriana, on which Price certainly has the requisite regal grandeur, but there is nothing else on volume 5, that I would really care to listen to again.

The first three volumes are a different matter and, if few of the performances are particularly revelatory, there is much to admire in both the singing and the voice we hear here, with volume three to my mind being the most successful.

Highlights would include Selika’s Sur mes genoux, fils du soleil from Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine and Do not  utter a word from Barber’s Vanessa from volume 1, Paolo, datemi pace from Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini and La mamma morta from Andrea Chénier from volume 2, Se vano il pregare from I Lombardi, Dis-moi que je suis belle from Thaïs and Mes filles, voilà s’achève fom Les Dialogues des Carmélites, from volume 3.

Though she was known for her Fiordiligi and Donna Anna, Mozart fares less well. Or sai chi l’onore certainly brims with outrage and drama, but, though Non mi dir is beautifully poised, the fast section is laboured and the voice, even in 1970 sounds an unwiledly instrument for this music. Elettra’s D’Oreste d’Ajace, from volume 4 recorded in 1978, suffers even more from a lack of mobility.

Still, we should be thankful for what we have. The first three discs showcase one of the most ravishing voices to have ever graced the operatic age. I used to own volume 3 on LP, which had always been one of my favourite opera recitals, and I was very excited to hear the complete set. If my expectations were not quite fulfilled, I am nonetheless happy to have it in my collection.