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The late, great Dame Joan Sutherland is shown here in four of her roles with Opera Australia, plus her famous 1983 concert in Sydney with Pavarotti. The earliest film is Lucrezia Borgia (1977), and we progress through La fille du régiment and Adriana Lecouvreur, one of Sutherland’s final assumptions, to her farewell Marguerite de Valois in Les Huguenots (1990).

The stage productions probably seemed rather dated at the time as Sutherland and her husband, the conductor Richard Bonynge, were never renowned for their spirit of dramatic adventurousness; by now they are positively antediluvian. Dame Joan drifts around creaking sets looking magnificently upholstered, swagged, beaded, fringed and bewigged. She could strike an attitude, head back and chin jutting, but movement is intermittent, though to be fair she reveals good comic timing as Donizetti’s vivandière and chomps a morsel of scenery in the dialogue of Act 3 of Adriana. But it was all about her voice and presence, and these mementoes of her Indian summer are a valuable record.

The bel canto line is everything, and in the Donizetti this works to Sutherland’s advantage; the Cilea is less successful, as the phrasing is immaculate but the weight of the individual words within each phrase is not dwelt upon. However this is not to disparage the tonal quality, obviously not as refulgent as of yore, but still magnificent in its lustre. The Meyerbeer finds her resources understandably diminished, the line less supported, but there are still many flashes of her old brilliance in the coloratura.

The concert shows Sutherland in great form, the voice fresh and excitingly dextrous, the repertoire central to her career – Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi – plus a glimpse of her final new role, Thomas’s Ophélie. Pavarotti is in superb voice too, and generally less mannered than he later became.

Sutherland’s partners in the staged performances are generally less exalted albeit dependable, though her mezzos gave her a good run for her money, especially Margareta Elkins in Lucrezia Borgia, and Anson Austin’s tenor is true throughout. Bonynge, as ever, provides sensitive accompaniment throughout in the pit, the ultimate singer’s conductor.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica


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