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Joan Sutherland Collector's Album: Rare Broadcasts
George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Alcina: Ecco l'infido...Di, cor mio, quanto t'amai (1735) [7:25]*+; Tiranna gelosia...Tornami a vagheggiar (1735) [5:00]+; Ah! Ruggiero crudel...Ombre pallide, lo so m'udite (1735) [7:00]+
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Se ti perdo (attrib. Haydn) [10:55]#
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Exsultate, jubilate (1773) [14:31]^
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Emilia di Liverpool: Madre, deh placati...Ah! di contento (1824) [5:00]°¶; Confusa e alma...Non intende il mio contento (1824) [6:41]¶
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Péchés de viellesse: La fiorala Fiorentina (1857-68) [3:36]²
Soirées musicales: Canzonetta: La promessa (1830-5) [3:17]§; Arietta: L'orgia (1830-5) [3:23]²; Tirolese: La pastorella dell'Alpi (1830-5) [2:09]²; Barcarola: La gita in gondola (1830-5) [2:54]²
Giovanni BONONCINI (1670-1747)
Griselda: Per la gloria d'adorarvi (1722) [4:47]²
Charles HORN (1786-1849)
Cherry Ripe (1826) [1:53]³
Joan Sutherland (soprano)
*Norma Procter (contralto); *Thomas Hemsley (baritone); #Dennis Brain (horn); +Capella Coloniensis/Ferdinand Leitner; #Goldsborough Orchestra/Charles Mackerras; ^Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra/Alberto Erede; °Singers from Liverpool Music Group; ¶Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/John Pritchard; Richard Bonynge (²piano, ³harpsichord); §Ernest Lush (piano)
rec. various venues, 1956-61
ALTO ALC 1185 [79:31]
This issue brings some highly enjoyable performances to our attention. It also provides an opportunity to reconsider that much-misunderstood vocal Fach, the dramatic coloratura soprano.
The Italian description soprano drammatica d'agilità - literally "dramatic soprano of agility" - connotes a "dramatic" voice, possibly of Verdian or Wagnerian amplitude, with exceptional flexibility and an upward extension. The English term, critically, displaces the emphasis from "dramatic" to "coloratura", so that any tweety-bird - er, leggiero soprano - with ambitions imagines that she can project, or perhaps force, her voice into Norma, Anna Bolena, and other large-framed roles.
As a house singer at Covent Garden, the young Joan Sutherland was treated as a Dramatic Soprano, assigned to roles as diverse as Aïda, Agathe and Micaëla while the management tried to figure out what to do with her, with the Siegfried Woodbird representing a baby step into Wagner. It was her husband, coach and mentor, Richard Bonynge, who perceived the voice's potential for flexibility and shepherded it accordingly.
The lively, refreshing Exsultate, jubilate, a piece Sutherland didn't record commercially, shows us the capabilities of this kind of voice. The piece has received many fine recordings - that by the under-heralded Edith Mathis (DG) remains one of my favorites - but you rarely hear it sung so easily and freely, or with such bright, clear, full-bodied tone. Nor is the singing merely mechanical, or inexpressive. The phrasing is deft and shapely in the outer movements - even if the hop-skip-and-a-jump through the first-movement cadenza incongruously suggests Tales of Hoffmann's Olympia! - and the central Tu virginum corona is serene. Alberto Erede's affectionate big-orchestra framework affords Sutherland solid cantabile support.
The scene and aria Se ti perdo is good to have, even if scholarship now questions its attribution to Haydn. Sutherland is urgent in the recitative, responsive to its rapidly shifting emotions, and her rendering of the aria proper is, by turns, stately and incisive, as is Mackerras's conducting. I'm not sure why Dennis Brain is given solo billing, however: I didn't hear any conspicuous horn solo, though there's a duet phrase or two in the introduction.
The Handel and Donizetti selections hew closer to Sutherland's central repertoire. The soprano recorded Alcina in the studio for Decca, but these broadcast excerpts gain in spontaneity. The dignified Di, cor mio brings the occasional droopy attack or slightly covered vowel; Tornami a vagheggiar is poised and lilting, no small feat. Fans of Procter and Hemsley should note that their participation is limited to a few lines in the first recitative.
The two arias from Emilia di Liverpool - that title sounds like a put-on, but it's not - sound very different: the first, despite the fresh, youthful timbre, hints at more mature tonal and interpretive depths to come; the second, more decorative piece sounds brighter, a bit less energized, but charmingly bell-like. Pritchard's conducting is energetic and supportive, if a bit slapdash in tutti.
Turning to the songs, La fiorala Fiorentina, with its pitch waver in the piano, may remind you of an old acoustic recording. The other recordings are steadier, though the songs themselves still have an old-fashioned, salonish quality. For whatever reason, these more intimate pieces seem to encourage the more occluded vowel qualities that would later make Sutherland a critical target - the elephant in the room, if you've read this far. Suffice to say that, in this program, I don't find her any less intelligible than most opera singers. The perky, harpsichord-accompanied Cherry Ripe rounds off the program pleasingly.
The sound is variable, and sometimes remarkably good. The Mozart is particularly clear and fresh, and the orchestra sounds rich. A bit of granulose distortion gets into the Haydn, and there's some breakup in Donizetti's tuttis. In the piano-accompanied selections, the instrument sounds tubby unless you cut the volume.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.