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Joan Sutherland – not a shred of drama in her soul

She was as motionless and monumental as an oak tree.

Sutherland in Lucia at San Diego. This was a production to confirm all the public prejudices against opera — a completely artificial kind of theater, without any human truth, infinitely far removed from real human concerns and real human feelings, and designed merely as a backdrop for empty vocal display by a large woman.
Sutherland in Lucia at San Diego. This was a production to confirm all the public prejudices against opera — a completely artificial kind of theater, without any human truth, infinitely far removed from real human concerns and real human feelings, and designed merely as a backdrop for empty vocal display by a large woman.

There has been a universal orgy of congratulation and self congratulation over Joan Sutherland’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the San Diego Opera. These feelings are understandable. When one has waited all year to hear a famous diva; when huge amounts of money have been spent to attract her – with baggage and husband — to this corner of the Far West; when the radio and the record stores are inundated with her recordings; when tickets are as precious as platinum and disappointed ticket seekers are weeping and swooning in the plaza before the Civic Theater — how then could one admit that the performance itself was less than perfect, that in fact it was deeply flawed and often insufferably boring? There is no more heady experience than the ecstatic abandonment felt by an opera audience in the presence of a truly great singer. Audiences are so eager for such an experience that they will sometimes deceive their own senses and deny their own feelings in order to believe that they are enjoying the musical high of a lifetime. Critics, alas, sometimes do the same thing. It may therefore be of some use to those whose critical awareness is not totally impaired by heroine-worship, if I attempt to inject a few drops of reality into the emotional outpourings we have been flooded with in the past couple of weeks.

Lucia di Lammermoor, let it be remembered, is a story about a girl who is callously separated from the man she loves, forced to marry a man she scarcely knows, driven to an insane frenzy in which she dispatches her bridegroom with a dagger, and finally reduced to exhaustion and death -- all by her beloved brother. The story, with its cruelty and crime, its murder and madness, is scarcely a mild one; and the character of the heroine is full of agony and darkness. If opera is the musical representation of human passions in dramatic action, then Lucia must be numbered among the most operatic of operas. The emotional impact of a good performance of this work — a performance in which the torments of Lucia’s emotional life are fully communicated through singing and action — is very great; it shakes you with pity and fear, it drains you. Yet who would suspect any of this from the performance of Joan Sutherland?

I am not now talking about “acting” ability. If, when Lucia is anxiously and eagerly awaiting her lover at the fountain, Miss Sutherland chooses to stand as motionless and monumental as an oak tree; if her entire repertoire of emotional gestures consists of a turn to the right, a turn to the left, and a hand on her breast — well, no one expects a grandiose soprano to have the stage technique of a Sarah Bernhardt; and in the mad scene Miss Sutherland’s wanderings and waverings, her sudden rushes and tipsy dances, were so close to adequate as to be unexceptionable. What is lacking in Sutherland is the ability to act with her voice — and this is a very great failing in a singer. Pathos, grief, love, terror, distractedness — none of these feelings is expressed in any but the most minimal degree in her singing of Donizetti’s heroine. The words themselves, the medium through which the dramatic situation emerges into the music, are so slurred and slighted that one wonders — now as throughout her whole career — whether Miss Sutherland has any idea of what they mean, or indeed whether she is really aware that they are words, rather than annoying interruptions of the vocal flow. If you did not know the plot, if you were to shut your eyes and do nothing but listen, you would never garner the least idea of what is going on either in Lucia’s situation or in her heart. All the notes are there, and sung with supreme ease and luscious vocalism; but there is no emotional communication whatever. It is notable that Miss Sutherland is most effective in the cadenza at the end of the first section of the mad scene -- that is, in a piece of music without words, calling for purely vocal display, expressing nothing, and not composed by Donizetti. Some music lovers seem to feel that a well sung cadenza can justify the whole opera; but for me opera is theatre, and music is emotion, and Lucia is tragic drama — and Joan Sutherland’s performance is consequently little more than a vocal exercise, in a concert recital.

As for the contribution of the rest of the company — most of them contributed generously to the impression that we were listening to a Sutherland recital, rather than a staged opera. Robert Hale, as Raimondo, sang with considerable feeling and with a fairly secure vocal technique, when he did not force the voice; and Gordon Greer, in the tiny role of Arturo, displayed a powerful and beautiful tenor voice reminiscent of Jussi Bjoerling’s, though stolid in expression and ridiculously un-Italian in diction. But John Darrenkamp, as Lucia’s brother Enrico, shouted at the top, brayed in the middle, and squeezed at the bottom; and the Edgardo of Franco Tagliavini was so limp and feeble (in spite of a pretty voice lying comfortably in the tenor range) that it was impossible to understand why Lucia should have gone mad over losing him. Richard Bonynge, Miss Sutherland’s husband, coach, and unavoidable collaborator, conducted with his usual exaggerations and disproportions, to which was added a seeming indifference to the special needs of an orchestra he had not worked with before; the result was the most ragged performance the San Diego Opera Orchestra has given in the past three seasons.

A soprano without a shred of drama in her soul, a weak supporting cast, a bad conductor — and to top things off, the vapid stage direction of the ubiquitous Bliss Hebert. Mr Hebert’s motto seems to be “Keep people moving!” The chorus is apparently instructed to stay in constant agitation, to make gestures all the time, to indicate without cease the emotions proper to the moment — and, if no emotions are proper to the moment, to express some sort of emotion, no matter what. The incessant, stupid, random posturings of this chorus relentlessly distract from the singing of the principals, and rather than adding to the drama interfere with it, because the movements and gestures are so totally lacking in plausible motivation and dramatic verisimilitude.

All in all, this was a production to confirm all the public prejudices against opera — a completely artificial kind of theater, without any human truth, infinitely far removed from real human concerns and real human feelings, and designed merely as a backdrop for empty vocal display by a large woman. The audiences at the Civic Theater seemed to have shared these prejudices, but — because of the splendor attached to the name Sutherland — to have reacted to all the defects as though they were virtues. I’m afraid I can’t go along. Opera is the greatest of the arts, and it deserves more than condescension — whether by the public or by Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge. Those who have had the experience of seeing and hearing Maria Callas or Beverly Sills sing Lucia will know what I mean. Those who have not would do well to listen to their recordings (Callas on Seraphim 6032, Sills on ABC 20006) before allowing their momentary enthusiasm for Joan Sutherland’s San Diego Lucia to solidify into a permanent memory of a delusive musical ecstasy.

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Sutherland in Lucia at San Diego. This was a production to confirm all the public prejudices against opera — a completely artificial kind of theater, without any human truth, infinitely far removed from real human concerns and real human feelings, and designed merely as a backdrop for empty vocal display by a large woman.
Sutherland in Lucia at San Diego. This was a production to confirm all the public prejudices against opera — a completely artificial kind of theater, without any human truth, infinitely far removed from real human concerns and real human feelings, and designed merely as a backdrop for empty vocal display by a large woman.

There has been a universal orgy of congratulation and self congratulation over Joan Sutherland’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the San Diego Opera. These feelings are understandable. When one has waited all year to hear a famous diva; when huge amounts of money have been spent to attract her – with baggage and husband — to this corner of the Far West; when the radio and the record stores are inundated with her recordings; when tickets are as precious as platinum and disappointed ticket seekers are weeping and swooning in the plaza before the Civic Theater — how then could one admit that the performance itself was less than perfect, that in fact it was deeply flawed and often insufferably boring? There is no more heady experience than the ecstatic abandonment felt by an opera audience in the presence of a truly great singer. Audiences are so eager for such an experience that they will sometimes deceive their own senses and deny their own feelings in order to believe that they are enjoying the musical high of a lifetime. Critics, alas, sometimes do the same thing. It may therefore be of some use to those whose critical awareness is not totally impaired by heroine-worship, if I attempt to inject a few drops of reality into the emotional outpourings we have been flooded with in the past couple of weeks.

Lucia di Lammermoor, let it be remembered, is a story about a girl who is callously separated from the man she loves, forced to marry a man she scarcely knows, driven to an insane frenzy in which she dispatches her bridegroom with a dagger, and finally reduced to exhaustion and death -- all by her beloved brother. The story, with its cruelty and crime, its murder and madness, is scarcely a mild one; and the character of the heroine is full of agony and darkness. If opera is the musical representation of human passions in dramatic action, then Lucia must be numbered among the most operatic of operas. The emotional impact of a good performance of this work — a performance in which the torments of Lucia’s emotional life are fully communicated through singing and action — is very great; it shakes you with pity and fear, it drains you. Yet who would suspect any of this from the performance of Joan Sutherland?

I am not now talking about “acting” ability. If, when Lucia is anxiously and eagerly awaiting her lover at the fountain, Miss Sutherland chooses to stand as motionless and monumental as an oak tree; if her entire repertoire of emotional gestures consists of a turn to the right, a turn to the left, and a hand on her breast — well, no one expects a grandiose soprano to have the stage technique of a Sarah Bernhardt; and in the mad scene Miss Sutherland’s wanderings and waverings, her sudden rushes and tipsy dances, were so close to adequate as to be unexceptionable. What is lacking in Sutherland is the ability to act with her voice — and this is a very great failing in a singer. Pathos, grief, love, terror, distractedness — none of these feelings is expressed in any but the most minimal degree in her singing of Donizetti’s heroine. The words themselves, the medium through which the dramatic situation emerges into the music, are so slurred and slighted that one wonders — now as throughout her whole career — whether Miss Sutherland has any idea of what they mean, or indeed whether she is really aware that they are words, rather than annoying interruptions of the vocal flow. If you did not know the plot, if you were to shut your eyes and do nothing but listen, you would never garner the least idea of what is going on either in Lucia’s situation or in her heart. All the notes are there, and sung with supreme ease and luscious vocalism; but there is no emotional communication whatever. It is notable that Miss Sutherland is most effective in the cadenza at the end of the first section of the mad scene -- that is, in a piece of music without words, calling for purely vocal display, expressing nothing, and not composed by Donizetti. Some music lovers seem to feel that a well sung cadenza can justify the whole opera; but for me opera is theatre, and music is emotion, and Lucia is tragic drama — and Joan Sutherland’s performance is consequently little more than a vocal exercise, in a concert recital.

As for the contribution of the rest of the company — most of them contributed generously to the impression that we were listening to a Sutherland recital, rather than a staged opera. Robert Hale, as Raimondo, sang with considerable feeling and with a fairly secure vocal technique, when he did not force the voice; and Gordon Greer, in the tiny role of Arturo, displayed a powerful and beautiful tenor voice reminiscent of Jussi Bjoerling’s, though stolid in expression and ridiculously un-Italian in diction. But John Darrenkamp, as Lucia’s brother Enrico, shouted at the top, brayed in the middle, and squeezed at the bottom; and the Edgardo of Franco Tagliavini was so limp and feeble (in spite of a pretty voice lying comfortably in the tenor range) that it was impossible to understand why Lucia should have gone mad over losing him. Richard Bonynge, Miss Sutherland’s husband, coach, and unavoidable collaborator, conducted with his usual exaggerations and disproportions, to which was added a seeming indifference to the special needs of an orchestra he had not worked with before; the result was the most ragged performance the San Diego Opera Orchestra has given in the past three seasons.

A soprano without a shred of drama in her soul, a weak supporting cast, a bad conductor — and to top things off, the vapid stage direction of the ubiquitous Bliss Hebert. Mr Hebert’s motto seems to be “Keep people moving!” The chorus is apparently instructed to stay in constant agitation, to make gestures all the time, to indicate without cease the emotions proper to the moment — and, if no emotions are proper to the moment, to express some sort of emotion, no matter what. The incessant, stupid, random posturings of this chorus relentlessly distract from the singing of the principals, and rather than adding to the drama interfere with it, because the movements and gestures are so totally lacking in plausible motivation and dramatic verisimilitude.

All in all, this was a production to confirm all the public prejudices against opera — a completely artificial kind of theater, without any human truth, infinitely far removed from real human concerns and real human feelings, and designed merely as a backdrop for empty vocal display by a large woman. The audiences at the Civic Theater seemed to have shared these prejudices, but — because of the splendor attached to the name Sutherland — to have reacted to all the defects as though they were virtues. I’m afraid I can’t go along. Opera is the greatest of the arts, and it deserves more than condescension — whether by the public or by Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge. Those who have had the experience of seeing and hearing Maria Callas or Beverly Sills sing Lucia will know what I mean. Those who have not would do well to listen to their recordings (Callas on Seraphim 6032, Sills on ABC 20006) before allowing their momentary enthusiasm for Joan Sutherland’s San Diego Lucia to solidify into a permanent memory of a delusive musical ecstasy.

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