Desirée records GAV004 + Desirée records GAV005

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Three years ago, Brian Castles-Onion, an excellent opera conductor and connaisseur commenced producing the "Great Australian Voices" series on Désirée Records in the hope that future generations would have the opportunity to hear how their musical ancestors sounded, what they sang, how they sang, who they sang with and what they thought about their roles.  So far, Nance Grant, Robert Allman and June Bronhill have each been honoured with 3CD sets covering their four decades of careers.  (Click on their names for the reviews)

Many live recordings of Joan Sutherland are  available but these performances from the 1965 "Sutherland-Williamson Grand Opera Season" recorded live by Management and fans have proven to be not easily available to the public.  Unlike many singers, Joan Sutherland’s sound in the theatre was often better than in the recording studio. That voice needed space to vibrate.

The excerpts on this newly released 4CD set, recorded in less than studio conditions, display the essence of Joan Sutherland in full flight.  Here is a full, healthy voice wedded to an immaculate vocal technique, innate musicality and a generosity of stage presence that personified ‘La Stupenda’. Joan Sutherland left Australia in 1951 to follow her dream and returned as the prize jewel in the J.C. Williamson crown for this historic tour. J.C. Williamson’s had presented the most well-known Australian soprano of those days, Dame Nellie Melba, with her own company in the 1911, 1924 and 1928 Melba-Williamson seasons, as well importing two post-war companies. Joan Sutherland was second in line to Nellie Melba and was at her vocal peak and so it seemed a perfect closure to J.C. Williamson’s operatic dreams.

All the operas in the 1965 season are represented in this release with or without Sutherland.  LUCIA di LAMMERMOOR, LA SONNAMBULA, L'ELISIR D'AMORE(without), EUGENE ONEGIN (without), LA TRAVIATA, SEMIRAMIDE and FAUST. Luciano Pavarotti, John Alexander, Alberto Remedios, Elizabeth Harwood, Monica Sinclair, Margreta Elkins, Lauris Elms, Joseph Ward, Spiro Malas, Cornelius Opthof, Richard Cross, Robert Allman, Joseph Rouleau, Clifford Grant, Andre Montal, Ronald Maconaghie, Tom McDonall - Richard Bonynge, Georg Tintner and William Weibel......are all there.

In Lucia one not only immediately notices the presence of Bonynge but also the high level of the cast with an accurate and occasionally  vigorous John Alexander as Edgardo who draws many bravos from an enthusiastic public. The Dutch-Canadian Cornelis Opthof is a sturdy Enrico fully capturing the character’s nastiness. A month later Elizabeth Harwood is the Lucia  singing with half the volume of Sutherland nor with la stupenda’s technical virtuosity or stratospheric top register. Yet it is an honest delivery of the role and a sense of musical discipline and meets with public approval. A month later Alberto Remedios is the new and eager Edgardo.
Joy Mannen is a fluttery, silvery voiced Tatiana (in English)  And Robert Allman is an impressive involved and passionate Onegin. John Alexander –excellent enunciation- is  a freshly voiced Lenski displaying good breath control in his ‘no more no more’.

In Semiramide Lauris Elms’s delivers a fine rendition (and trill)  of Arsace’s Ah! Quel giorno even gaining applause in mid-aria (!!) for her use of deep chest voice and she is all but overpowered by Dame Joan in the Serbami ognor duet. Monica Sinclair is the warm-voiced Arsace in the “finale” , her voice blending perfectly with Sutherland’s. Joseph Ward  is quite able to cope with the fiendishly difficult “la speranza più soave” without cheating eliciting even some ‘wows’ from the audience which is obviously having a field day. Great praise to Bonynge too, what a fine conductor he was and still is.

Maestro William Weibel* leads the Melbourne Faust performance with Cornelis Opthof as a worthy Valentin with good French and Richard Cross a very charismatic Méphistophélès. John Alexander is no Gedda but the role fits his vocal armour very well. His fine delivery of “Salut demeure” shows what a cultivated artist he was. He and Opthof have the best French of the cast. The ever reliable Margreta Elkins is de luxe casting as Siébel (she also sings the role in Sutherland’s commercial recording) yet her French is substandard as is Sutherland’s.

In the Sonnambula excerpts –not in the best sound - both Sutherland and Pavarotti are understandably in much fresher (and better) voice than on the commercial recording made 15 years later.  Pavarotti is fabulous in “perché non posso odiarti” yet the timbre is regrettably often distorted by the variable sound. The audience knows what they are hearing and react with loud and enthusiastic applause. Sutherland does “Ah, non creadea mirarti” very sensitively, excellent trills included and of course goes full gear for “Ah, non giunge” and the finale  is another example of Sutherland’s vocal art at its most brilliant. An explosion of public approval follows.
In Traviata Sutherland has both Pavarotti and Opthof as the Germonts. Pavarotti is a graceful lyrical Alfredo and Opthof an imposing Germont. I also find Sutherland in some ways even improving on her portrayal for the 1963 Decca recording. A golden age of singing indeed.

Weibel conducts the L’elisire d’amore  with Elizabeth Harwood as Adina in a part much better suited to her voice than Lucia. She displays fine musicianship and sings Adina’s music appealingly.  Pavarotti sings the role of Nemorino of course to perfection, regrettably though “una furtiva” is not included. Robert Allman is a properly vain Belcore who is also able to sing the sergeant’s music with finesse and panache when needed. A wonderful characterization.

Oh and the sometimes audible prompter was the 68 year old Adelio Zangonara a comprimario from la Scala who auditioned for the company but was offered the role of prompter which he accepted.

The original tapes come from various sources and range in audio quality from excellent (those recorded by Management by placing microphones in the proscenium) to those recorded by a hidden microphone in a coat lapel.  These audience recordings capture the more unusual partnerships like Sutherland and Remedios in Lucia, or Harwood and Pavarotti in L’elisire d’amore.

The copious notes document the entire season from details of fees, along with the turmoils and sackings. An overall picture of the event has been told truthfully and with accuracy - warts and all.

The set has a  40 page booklet complete with cast biographies, rare rehearsal and backstage photographs -several in colour- mounted in a lavish CD Book format.
Let’s hope more treasures will eventually be released by Désirée records. The CD portraits are available at very affordable prices so there’s no reason nor excuse not to buy.


An even rarer recording of Joan Sutherland than the previous release on Désirée Records... Her Australia House Recital 1959 - a few months after her spectacular debut as Lucia di Lammermoor.  

This live recording was made  by someone in the audience and has never been heard since! This exciting new release comes direct from the only existing tape. The programme presented forms the basis of what became Sutherland’s recital repertoire for the next three decades and it also captures the soprano’s breathtaking, youthful voice.  Technical skill in abundance but also musicality and theatrical abandon as if determined to prove her talent to the already approving audience. This is Joan Sutherland at her very best. A miracle of vocal cords.

Despite its sometimes less than perfect sound, this rarity is a major find for collectors of great singing or Sutherland fans tout court.

She’s accompanied by Richard Bonynge.

(Recorded live in Australia House, London on 18th June 1959)


Operanostalgia, November 2016

*William Weibel devotes a whole chapter to the Australian  tour in his  book “Behind the curtain” , click here to order the book