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Len Mullenger:

Dame Joan Sutherland (soprano), Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Francesco Molinari-Pradelli
Decca Legends 467 115-2  2 CDs, 52' 38"; 55' 54"
 £17.00   Amazon US  $21.82 probably a saving  from the UK

Arne: Artaxerxes: The soldier tir'd
Norma: Sediziose voci … Casta diva … Ah! Bello a me ritorna
     I Puritani: O rendetemi la speme … Qui la voce … Vien, diletto Son vergin vezzosa
     La Sonnambula: Care compagne … Come per me sereno … Sovra il sen
Lakmé: Ah! Où va la jeune Indoue
Samson: Let the bright Seraphim
Faust: O Dieu! Que de bijoux … Ah! Je ris de me voir
    Roméo et Juliette: Ah! Je veux vivre
Les Huguenots: O beau pays de la Touraine!
Die Entführung aus dem Serail: Martern aller Arten
Semiramide: Bel raggio lusinghier
: Hamlet: A vos jeux, mes amis
Otello: Mia madre aveva una povera ancella … Piangea cantando
Gualtier Maldè … Caro nome
    La Traviata: E' strano … Ah, fors'è lui … Sempre libera

Begin with Son vergin vezzosa and, over a lilting accompaniment, you will hear this incredibly beautiful voice flitting, floating and dancing around the notes with such freedom that you want to compare it, not with other voices, but with a violinist like Kreisler. Go to the opening of O rendetemi la speme and you will hear that the voice has shade as well as light, and her Otello aria is as profoundly moving as any. Yet the comparison with a violin remains apt, for the words, if not exactly absent, are subordinated to the musical line.

This, then, is the essence of Sutherland; a voice which manages to combine purity with enough vibrations to fascinate the ear, complete evenness from top to bottom, extreme agility and a notable expressive range. As an interpreter her first interests are vocal and musical; the drama of the situation must be portrayed through these means. This entails two features for which she was widely criticised; her diction and her scooping.

Those who rudely said she must have had a cleft palate greatly exaggerated, but she seems to have made a conscious decision that the words were not in themselves a means of expression and they were not to be allowed to disturb the stream of sound upon which her interpretation was built. As for the scooping, I prefer to say that she floats gently from note to note, avoiding her coloratura from sounding too geometric.

Both these characteristics have their dangers, and I am not going to say that in the thirty-odd years of career which followed this record she never fell into them, but here, in 1960, she was at her absolute prime and is shown to be both unique and uniquely great. While it may be that some present-day practitioners have found a more convincing style for Arne, Handel and Mozart, all the rest is seamless gold, some of the most ravishing singing you will ever hear.

To get an idea of why she was unique, compare her Lakmé aria with the recordings by Galli-Curci and Callas. Galli-Curci (1917) is a pure canary, her effortless agility a joy in itself but a slightly monochrome one. Go to Sutherland and the voice has body. With Callas the voice is made a servant of her dramatic conception. She seems harsh and effortful beside Sutherland, but effective in her own terms.

Each item in this set was planned as a tribute to a great prima donna of the past (profiles of them by Alan Blyth appear in the booklet) and while this results in a slightly odd order (the Mozart between the Otello and Traviata arias, for instance) I am glad the records have been reissued exactly as they were. The timings, pretty generous for LPs, may seem short today, but again, I feel Decca have made the right decision not to bring in extra material. With full texts and translations this is a model of how a company should present its archive material (unlike certain EMI compilations I've been reviewing recently).

Molinari-Pradelli could be a listless conductor on occasion, but here he contributes strongly to the success of the enterprise. Apart from a slight woolliness in the choir (which only sings in a few items) the recordings still sound excellent.

Chris Howell



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