Don’t cry, go and see Rigoletto!

Joan Sutherland has passed on. Inevitably, obituarians are taking the opportunity to contend that she was the greatest soprano, or even the greatest singer, of the post war period, or even of the 20th Century. Others are content just to raise the question.

When it comes to choosing between artists in the highest rank, it’s a partly matter of taste. Some will prefer one singer for her ability to convey emotion; others will prefer a different one for the ‘purity’ or ‘warmth’ of her tone, whatever those words mean (the vocabulary of the voice critic is as specialised as the wine taster’s). But when it comes to something called technique, I suspect that Martin Kettle (linked above) is expressing conventional wisdom in saying that:

…it’s the once-in-a-lifetime combination of instrument, ambition and technique that makes 1 such a complete artist. Of course, it was the amazing security of her top notes and the dazzling accuracy of her coloratura that always brought the house down. But it was Sutherland’s soaring, flowing line that really marked her out from the others…

However, this is actually the worst time for ranking exercises. The death of a loved performer tends to bring forth hyperbole from the devotees, and this in turn provokes indignant counter-hyperbole from fans of rival performers, in this case other coloratura sopranos such Callas, Sills or Gruberova. A balanced comparison is impossible in this atmosphere, and judgement should be left to history.

In the meantime, it’s enough to note the completion of a long life by an exceptional artist, whose exceptional combination of natural gifts and hard work brought great pleasure to millions. And, if it matters to anyone, Sutherland also remained recognisably and proudly Australian despite spending most of her life overseas.

The best way to celebrate Sutherland, I’d recommend, rather than sit around listening to snippets of her recordings, would be go to an opera. I don’t know much about her thoughts on the meaning of opera, nor have I even read her autobiography, but I’d like to imagine that’s what she would have wanted. The power of opera as an art form isn’t found primarily in recordings of defunct singers, let alone in individual arias and other highlights. It’s in the living theatre, where music intensifies a fully unfolding drama on stage. A performer’s greatest contribution is to keep that art form alive, and further fuel the fire of audience passion.

And if you decide to celebrate Joan Sutherland’s passing by seeing an opera, and you happen to be in Sydney or Melbourne, there would be no better choice than Opera Australia’s current production of Rigoletto. I say this without having seen it myself, and not because it’s necessarily the best OA production on offer at the moment — that would probably Der Rosenkavalier (which I have seen and heartily recommend). Indeed, Rigoletto failed to earn unqualified praise from Peter McCallum and Sarah Noble, and I’m ready to bet that their criticisms are on the mark.

However, whatever shortcomings the production might have, it will be worth seeing it for Emma Matthews in the role of Gilda. This is the part Sutherland is singing in the first video clip. Matthews is our best coloratura soprano at the moment. She has done several of the roles that made Sutherland famous, and in some of these was directed by Richard Bonynge, who of course was influential in developing his wife’s talent.

There’s nothing on Youtube of Matthews singing Verdi, but for a foretaste here she is in the production of La Sonnambula from earlier in the current season.

By all accounts she does a superb job in Rigoletto, which is worth the price of a seat just for the famous quartet in the final act, performed here, for anyone who’s still reading, by a slightly older Sutherland with Pavarotti. This opera, incidentally, is ideal for beginners. It has great characters and an intensely dramatic story. Although there a few hummable arias, most of the music is typical of 19th Century opera at its best — fluid, complex, rich and atmospheric — while still being very accessible.

The remaining Sydney performances are on 16, 18, 21, 23, 27 and 29 October, and 1 and 4 November; then the production moves to Melbourne with the first performance on 22 November. For Joan’s sake, go and see it live, in full, with the incumbent diva.

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Nicholas Gruen
13 years ago

Thanks for that James – I’ve just gone and read the Guardian piece. Very touching.

She says she has stopped singing, though “I hum around the house”. The voice that was once dubbed the vocal phenomenon of the postwar era “is still there”, she says, “but the physical strain on the body is too great. I just stopped. I don’t go to the opera very much. I think I’m a bit of a dropout.”

Only once since 1990 has Sutherland thought to let it rip one last time. A year or two after her retirement, her husband was flying home from Canada and “I decided to surprise him”. But after a day’s strenuous vocal exercises she found herself coughing and choking. “So then I really did give up.”

The Feral Abacus
The Feral Abacus
13 years ago

James F, that’s a lovely post and a very fitting tribute.

I think your suggestion of celebrating Sutherland’s life by attending opera is particularly apt.

For male readers in Adelaide, an alternative would be to have a haircut at Frank’s (just off the east end of Rundle St) and engage Frank in conversation about opera. Not sure how much Frank knows about Sutherland, but he has a deep passion for Italian opera, albeit modestly expressed. Chances are that he’ll have a Rigoletto CD on his workbench that he will be happy to play if you ask…