V0652. JOAN SUTHERLAND, w.Vickers, Lanigan & Langdon; Kubelik Cond. Royal Opera House Ensemble: Die Meistersinger & Zauberflöte – Excerpts, Live Performance, 5 May, 1957; Joan Sutherland, w.Bonynge (Pf.): Arias from Emilia di Liverpool & Zemir et Azor – recorded 20 June, 1958 (from the Belcantodisc 45rpm issue). (England) Pearl 0222. Final copy! - 727031022220
"In her own time, there was a tendency to take Sutherland for granted, so consistent were her high standards of technique, musicianship and, yes, acting. Her total command of the stage was always formidable. No recording can really give an impression of how big the voice was….it had an astonishing and physically thrilling impact."
- Patrick O’Connor, GRAMOPHONE, Jan., 2007
“It was Italy’s notoriously picky critics who dubbed the Australian-born Ms. Sutherland the ‘La Stupenda’ after her Italian début in Venice in 1960. And for 40 years the name endured with opera lovers around the world. Her 1961 début at the Metropolitan Opera in Donizetti’s LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, generated so much excitement that standees began lining up at 7:30 that morning. Her singing of the Mad Scene drew a thunderous 12-minute ovation.
Ms. Sutherland’s singing was founded on astonishing technique. Her voice was evenly produced throughout an enormous range, from a low G to effortless flights above high C. She could spin lyrical phrases with elegant legato, subtle colorings and expressive nuances. Her sound was warm, vibrant and resonant, without any forcing. Indeed, her voice was so naturally large that at the start of her career Ms. Sutherland seemed destined to become a Wagnerian dramatic soprano.
Following her first professional performances, in 1948, during a decade of steady growth and intensive training, Ms. Sutherland developed incomparable facility for fast runs, elaborate roulades and impeccable trills. She did not compromise the passagework, as many do, by glossing over scurrying runs, but sang almost every note fully. Her abilities led Richard Bonynge, the Sydney-born conductor and vocal coach whom she married in 1954, to persuade her early on to explore the early-19th-century Italian opera of the bel canto school. She became a major force in its revitalization.
In a glowing and perceptive review of her performance as Desdemona in Verdi’s OTELLO at Covent Garden in late 1957, the critic Andrew Porter, writing in The Financial Times, commended her for not ‘sacrificing purity to power’. This is ‘not her way’, Mr. Porter wrote, ‘and five years on we shall bless her for her not endeavoring now to be ‘exciting’ but, instead, lyrical and beautiful’. She became an international sensation after her career-defining performance in the title rôle of LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at Covent Garden — its first presentation there since 1925 — which opened on 17 Feb., 1959. The production was directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by the Italian maestro Tullio Serafin, a longtime Callas colleague, who elicited from the 32-year-old soprano a vocally resplendent and dramatically affecting portrayal of the trusting, unstable young bride of Lammermoor.
Mr. Porter, reviewing the performance in The Financial Times, wrote that the brilliance of Ms. Sutherland’s singing was to be expected by this point. The surprise, he explained, was the new dramatic presence she brought to bear. This triumph was followed in 1960 by landmark portrayals in neglected bel canto operas by Bellini: Elvira in I PURITANI at the Glyndebourne Festival (the first presentation in England since 1887) and LA SONNAMBULA at Covent Garden (the company’s first production in half a century).
Ms. Sutherland’s American début came in November 1960 in the title rôle of Handel’s ALCINA at the Dallas Opera, the first American production of this now-popular work. At Ms. Sutherland’s first appearance in New York, her enormously anticipated Metropolitan Opera début in LUCIA, on 26 Nov., before she had sung a note, there was an enthusiastic ovation. Following the first half of Lucia’s Mad Scene in the final act, which culminated in a glorious high E-flat, the ovation lasted almost 5 minutes. When she finished the scene and her crazed, dying Lucia collapsed to the stage floor, the ovation lasted 12 minutes. Reviewing the performance in The New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg wrote that other sopranos might have more power or a sweeter tone, but ‘there is none around who has the combination of technique, vocal security, clarity and finesse that Miss Sutherland can summon'.
At 5-foot-9, she was a large woman, with long arms and large hands, and a long, wide face. As her renown increased, she insisted that designers create costumes for her that compensated for her figure, which, as she admitted self-deprecatingly in countless interviews, was somewhat flat in the bust but wide in the rib cage. Certain dresses could make her look like ‘a large column walking about the stage’, she wrote in THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF JOAN SUTHERLAND: A PRIMA DONNA’S PROGRESS (1997).
Joan Alston Sutherland was born on 7 Nov., 1926, in Sydney, where the family lived in a modest house overlooking the harbor. The family garden and the rich array of wildflowers on the hillside near the beach inspired her lifelong love of gardening.
Her mother, Muriel Sutherland, was a fine mezzo-soprano who had studied with Mathilde Marchesi, the teacher of the Australian soprano Nellie Melba. Though too shy for the stage, Ms. Sutherland’s mother did vocal exercises every day and was her daughter’s principal teacher throughout her adolescence. Ms. Sutherland’s father, William, a Scottish-born tailor, had been married before. His first wife died during the influenza epidemic after World War I, leaving him with three daughters and a son. Ms. Sutherland was the only child of his second marriage. Although Ms. Sutherland’s mother soon recognized her daughter’s gifts, she pegged her as a mezzo-soprano. At 16, facing the reality of having to support herself, Ms. Sutherland completed a secretarial course and took office jobs, while keeping up her vocal studies. She began lessons in Sydney with Aida Dickens, who convinced her that she was a soprano, very likely a dramatic soprano. In 1951, with prize money from winning a prestigious vocal competition, she and her mother moved to London, where Ms. Sutherland enrolled at the opera school of the Royal College of Music. The next year, after three previous unsuccessful auditions, she was accepted into the Royal Opera at Covent Garden and made her début as the First Lady in Mozart’s ZAUBERFLÖTE.
In the company’s landmark 1952 production of Bellini’s NORMA, starring Maria Callas, Ms. Sutherland sang the small role of Clotilde, Norma’s confidante. ‘Now look after your voice’, Callas advised her at the time, adding, ‘We’re going to hear great things of you’. ‘I lusted to sing Norma after being in those performances with Callas’, Ms. Sutherland said in a 1998 New York Times interview. ‘But I knew that I could not sing it the way she did. It was 10 years before I sang the rôle. During that time I studied it, sang bits of it, and worked with Richard [Bonynge]. But I had to evolve my own way to sing it, and I would have wrecked my voice to ribbons had I tried to sing it like her’. In 1955 she created the lead rôle of Jenifer in Michael Tippett’s MIDSUMMER MARRIAGE.
In the early 1960s', using a home in southern Switzerland as a base, Ms. Sutherland made the rounds, singing in international opera houses and forming a close association with the Met, where she ultimately sang 223 performances. These included an acclaimed new production of NORMA in 1970 with Ms. Horne in her Met début, singing Adalgisa; Mr. Bonynge conducted. There was also a hugely popular 1972 production of Donizetti’s LA FILLE DU RÉGIMENT, with Pavarotti singing the role of Tonio.”
- Anthony Tommasini, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 11 Oct., 2010
“The Canadian tenor Jon Vickers brought a colossal voice and raw dramatic intensity to everything he sang, including legendary portrayals of Wagner’s TRISTAN, Verdi’s OTELLO, Beethoven’s Florestan and Britten’s Peter Grimes, had few rivals. Yet, even in subdued passages, whether posing questions as the clueless title character of Wagner’s PARSIFAL or singing tender phrases of a Schubert song, Mr. Vickers’ voice had penetrating body and depth. For all his power, he was a master at singing high pianissimo phrases with ethereal beauty. Making every word he sang matter was another hallmark of his artistry. Mr. Vickers was incapable of fudging a text for the sake of vocal effect, a priority he traced to his Christian upbringing, in which hymns and prayers were revered. Still, Mr. Vickers had his share of detractors, who found his singing burly and gruff.
He identified intensely with the characters he portrayed, especially misfits, like Peter Grimes, and misunderstood heroes, like Verdi’s Otello, who are outwardly strong but struggling against brutal destinies. Yet he readily admitted that in taking risks and giving his all, his singing could be inconsistent and uncontrolled. That Mr. Vickers lost himself in his roles did not surprise those who knew him. He was a volatile and enigmatic person, in many ways decent and principled, but hot-tempered and quick to jump on any perceived slight.
The soprano Birgit Nilsson, the great Isolde to his Tristan, said that Mr. Vickers ‘was almost always unhappy’, and that his ‘nerves were outside the skin, not inside the skin’, as she told Jeannie Williams, the author of JON VICKERS: A HERO’S LIFE. In her book, Ms. Williams recounts stories of Mr. Vickers bullying underlings and dressing down colleagues. When a 1986 Metropolitan Opera production of Handel’s SAMSON traveled to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Mr. Vickers insulted the conductor, Julius Rudel, during a rehearsal in front of the entire cast and orchestra, shaking Mr. Rudel so much that he offered to quit. Yet in interviews he often spoke of how his rural roots and Christian convictions had shaped his life philosophy, as he explained in a 1974 documentary for the Canadian Broadcast Company: ‘The understanding, which slowly and surely developed in me, of the necessity of human contact and an understanding of the needs of others and their problems has probably, more than anything else, given me the ability to analyze my roles, to come to grips with a score, to study a drama, to project my feelings into the life of someone I’ve never met except on a piece of paper’.
Encouraged to pursue singing seriously, he auditioned for George Lambert, a voice teacher who recruited students for the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, and was offered a scholarship, beginning with the 1950-51 academic year. While at the conservatory, Mr. Vickers met Henrietta Elsie Outerbridge, a child of missionaries who had worked in China. Hetti, as she was called, had studied medicine for several semesters and taught English and art. They married in July 1953. A devoted couple, they were ‘one of the great love stories of our time’, in the words of the soprano Teresa Stratas.
Mr. Vickers considered his professional stage début to be a performance in 1954 as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s RIGOLETTO at the Toronto Opera Festival, which in 1959 became the Canadian Opera Company. Over the next two years with the festival he sang Alfredo in LA TRAVIATA, Don José in CARMEN and other roles but preferred singing for radio and television because the work paid better.
In 1957, for his first season at the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London, he sang Don José, Riccardo in BALLO IN MASCHERA and Enée (Aeneas) in Berlioz’s epic opera LES TROYENS. Mr. Vickers would later sing Enée in a new production of the opera at Covent Garden in 1969, the centennial of the composer’s death. The conductor was Colin Davis, an inspired Berlioz interpreter. During the run, the Covent Garden forces recorded the opera in a London studio, and the sessions were tense. The cast, especially Mr. Vickers, complained of the strain of recording the work while also performing it on stage. Some rough patches in Mr. Vickers’s singing come through. Still, he brought a heroic cast to the music, and the recording remains a classic.
Mr. Vickers’ first performances at the Metropolitan Opera came in early 1960, singing Canio in Leoncavallo’s PAGLIACCI, Florestan in Beethoven’s FIDELIO and Siegmund in Wagner’s WALKÜRE, all within two months. It was on the Met stage in 1967 that Mr. Vickers introduced what many consider his greatest achievement, the title role of Britten’s PETER GRIMES, conducted by Mr. Davis and directed by Tyrone Guthrie. Working with a libretto by Montagu Slater, Britten conceived the title role of the loner fisherman in an English village for his lifelong partner, the tenor Peter Pears, who gave the first performance in London in 1945. With his ethereal voice, Pears portrayed the fisherman as an alienated dreamer, a misfit in a narrow-minded town. While yearning to be accepted, Grimes takes out his thwarted anger on homeless boys who are drafted into work as his apprentices. Britten described the opera as depicting the struggle of an individual against the masses. But many see Grimes’ persecution as a metaphor for the oppression of homosexuals. Mr. Vickers, who was, as many of his colleagues recounted, quite homophobic, could not abide such an interpretation. For him [the role of] Peter Grimes was a study in the ‘psychology of human rejection’, a view shared by Mr. Davis and Guthrie. With his powerful heldentenor voice, Mr. Vickers revealed the danger within the twisted psyche of the ostracized fisherman. His Grimes was one moment lost in reverie, the next exploding with brutality. His bleakly poignant portrayal and fearsome singing altered the public perception of the role. Though they did not like to voice their attitudes publicly, Britten and Pears were dismayed by Mr. Vickers’ Grimes. But they could not argue with success. Companies around the world mounted productions of PETER GRIMES for Mr. Vickers.
He sang more than 280 total performances at the Met, including the company premiere of LES TROYENS in 1973, and the title roles of Verdi’s OTELLO and Wagner’s PARSIFAL. For years Mr. Vickers resisted the role of Wagner’s Tristan, to the frustration of Birgit Nilsson, the great Isolde of her day, who had been searching for a powerhouse tenor who could match her in the opera. Mr. Vickers finally came through in Buenos Aires in 1971, singing Tristan to Ms. Nilsson’s Isolde. It was a triumph. They went on to sing it many times, though not as often as Ms. Nilsson had hoped. ‘I told him at the time that I waited and waited for my Tristan for 14 years’, Ms. Nilsson told THE NEW YORK TIMES, ‘as long as Jacob waited for Rachel in the Bible’. He sang the role just twice at the Met, and only one of those was with Ms. Nilsson, on 30 Jan., 1974.
Mr. Vickers lived in Toronto at the start of his career and then settled in London before returning to Canada and buying a farm about an hour’s drive from Toronto. After his retirement in 1988 he gave occasional master classes but mostly kept a low profile. He once touched on the impetus of his artistry in a graduation address in 1969 at the Royal Academy of Music in Toronto. ‘I sang because I had to’, he said. Singing, he explained, was ‘an absolute necessity, fulfilling some kind of emotional and even perhaps physical need in me’.”
- Anthony Tommasini, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 12 July, 2015