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Gaetano Donizetti

Joan Sutherland ‘Lucia’, London 1959

1959. Royal Opera House, London
Joan Sutherland's sensational debut in 'Lucia di Lammermoor' at the Royal Opera House in 1959
Composer Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor Tullio Serafin
Singer Joan Sutherland
Ensemble Covent Garden Opera
Genre Opera

Sutherland’s first Lucia

Joan Sutherland’s third assignment in her busy first month as a 26-year-old member of the Covent Garden Opera was as Clothilde alongside the London debut of Maria Callas as Norma in November 1952, a performance also available on Music Preserved.  She had been hired as a ‘utility’ soprano, beginning with First Lady in The Magic Flute and Priestess in Aida, before rapidly graduating to Amelia in A Masked Ball and Countess in Marriage of Figaro in her first season.  Her range of roles during her subsequent seasons as a company member demonstrates her versatility: Overseer in Elektra (under Kleiber); Lady Rich in Gloriana (under Goodall on tour); Frasquita and later Micaela in Carmen; Aida title role; Agathe in Freischütz; Helmwige, then Woglinde and Woodbird in The Ring; all three heroines in Tales of Hoffmann; Jenifer in the premiere of Midsummer Marriage (available on MP); Pamina; Eva; Gilda; Desdemona; Mme Lidoine in the UK premiere of Poulenc’s Carmelites; and presciently the Israelite Woman whose coloratura in ‘Let the bright Seraphim’ dazzled the audience in the 1958 staging of Handel’s Samson (also on MP).  All the while, her husband Richard Bonynge was encouraging her to hone her bel canto technique, waiting for the right opportunity.

Meanwhile, Covent Garden’s management was pondering how to build on the success of Norma, and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor was mooted as early as 1956 as a vehicle for Callas.  When nothing came of that, David Webster and Lord Harewood, supported by Musical Director Rafael Kubelik, made a case for considering Sutherland, but the Board thought it too risky to programme a little-known opera without an international star.  In early 1957 Callas returned for two more acclaimed Normas, albeit with a new Australian Clothilde, Marie Collier.  Then, that summer, the surprise success of an imported Italian Opera season at the Stoll Theatre was Lucia with Virginia Zeani in the title role.  Webster persevered, but realised that a top level conductor and director were required to support the local artist.  Both Giulini and Visconti, who were rehearsing Don Carlos in spring 1958, declined, but he managed to secure the veteran Tullio Serafin, who had first conducted at Covent Garden in 1908 and who had coached Callas in the role, and the young Visconti pupil Franco Zeffirelli.

Sutherland travelled to Venice to work with Serafin who, finding her already well-prepared, focused on welding text to music.  Zeffirelli explained how he proposed to create a 19th century world with his detailed designs.  One of his gifts was to envisage pictures which showed his singers to their best advantage.  Sutherland had large features and could be ungainly on stage, but Zeffirelli’s massive romantic Scottish castle made her seem vulnerable.  He limited her movement to essentials, most memorably during the Mad Scene where she descended a section of a spiral staircase and crouched under its looming pillars.  In the earlier stages of planning, it had been intended to perform the opera in an English translation commissioned from Christopher Hassall, but Serafin insisted that it must be in Italian if he was to be involved.

Lucia catapulted Sutherland to stardom, and it became her signature role.  She repeated it with a different Edgardo, the mellifluous Canadian André Turp, during the subsequent two seasons and again in 1965.  When she returned to it in 1973, Edgardo was Luciano Pavarotti.  For her final Covent Garden Lucias in 1985, the tenor was Carlo Bergonzi, by which time they were respectively in their 59th and 60th years. It is a tribute to their rock-solid techniques that they still sang magnificently, albeit with a dimming of the brilliance that had bedazzled us 26 years before.  No singer in my experience has matched the full creamy rich but bright tone with which Sutherland invested the upper reaches of the role, while at the same time relishing the agility and fleetness in the passagework and supplying pinpoint articulation.  Just listen to her trills in the opening cavatina, ‘Regnava nel silenzio’, still more in its cabaletta, ‘Quando rapita in estasi’.  As for the interpolated acuti, which with most singers emerge as piercing train whistles, she simply nails them full-voice.

The supporting cast is stentorian rather than elegant, except for the house tenor Kenneth Macdonald in the small role of Arturo.  Four years later he sang a single performance of a much more demanding Arturo opposite Sutherland’s unsurpassed Elvira in I Puritani.  The 1959 dress rehearsal of Lucia was attended by Maria Callas, discreetly hidden from sight in a box.  After the Mad Scene, she visited the new Lucia and was graciously complimentary.  Callas sang two more Lucias in Dallas the following autumn, but thereafter never again.

Nicholas Payne      
16 June 2024

Gaetano Donizetti (1797 – 1848)

Lucia di Lammermoor

Track 1: Act 1

Track 2: Act 2

Track 3: Act 3

This recording was made at the performance at the Royal Opera House on 26 February 1959.

Remastering by Paul Baily

The recording is in the Hendra Collection at Music Preserved.

  • Joan Sutherland
  • João Gibin
  • John Shaw
  • Joseph Rouleau
  • Kenneth Macdonald
  • Margreta Elkins
  • Robert Bowman
  • The Covent Garden Opera Chorus
  • The Covent Garden Opera Orchestra
  • Tullio Serafin

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