07 November 2010

Two Divas, and a Few Disappointments

Shirley Verrett as Neocle,
the Corinthian commander, 1975

We call them divas — goddesses — but they’re mortal. Nowadays, we’re losing a great many fine singers whose work steered me through my ear­li­est expeditions in music: I am reaching that age, and they are reaching theirs, when these things happen as a matter of course. And yet I’m saddened by the losses.

Among Shirley Verrett’s many accomplishments, she was the first mezzo I heard in opera, on that fateful night 35 years ago in Dallas. There isn’t a mezzo at all in Pagliacci, the only other opera I’d heard, and so it’s possible that I required the presence of a mezzo in order to become an opera-lover. Or perhaps the lesson is that, if Verrett had botched the job, I might not have become a mezzo-lover.

Backstage at the Met during Les Troyens: Verrett made history
by singing both Cassandre and Didon.

Verrett was in any case awfully good, I thought at the time, once I got over the fact that she was playing a man in The Siege of Corinth: Neocle, the Greek general. This adjustment didn’t take terribly long, since I’d grown up listening to Mary Martin play a boy.

Neocle discovers in the first scene that Pamira, his betrothed, is in love with another man (and a real man in this case, a bass-baritone). With Corinth under siege, he takes a time-out to demand that her father settle the matter — giving the enemy the perfect opportunity to storm the city. Apart from that lapse of judgment, he’s a paragon of duty: his own, Pamira’s, you name it. This could make for dull company, but Verrett acted with real power.

That first night, I didn’t know enough about singing to appreciate what she did mu­si­cally, but since then, I’ve listened to the recording a thousand times. With a voice at once dark and gleam­ing, she colors even the most intricate passages with such character: prideful, sorrowing, a bit angry.

She performed a wide repertory, and I cherish several of her recordings. I’d love to have seen her as Lady M or Carmen, as Dalila or Amneris. People who were lucky enough are still raving about some of those performances. But by the time I got to New York, Verrett was focusing more on soprano roles, and the reports I heard weren’t encouraging. I didn’t have much money for Met tickets, even for performances I yearned to attend, much less those about which I was unenthusiastic. And so I missed out on the rest of Verrett’s career.

Siege: Beverly Sills with Justino Diaz
Do you see why Pamina prefers Maometto over Neocle?

I missed out on Joan Sutherland’s career, too, but willfully so. My friends grieve now for the Australian soprano, but I never liked her: she was quite simply one of the dullest singers I ever heard, and proof that perfect technique is in itself insufficient to move me. I never had the privilege of hearing her in the opera house or concert hall, but her recordings and broadcasts were such a compendium of my pet peeves that I never tried to go. (And probably I couldn’t have fought my way through the mobs of people who really wanted to hear her.)

What, then, were the faults of this woman now eulogized as the most per­fect of all singers? You can sum them up in a single word: inex­pres­sivity.

Sutherland in 1975, the year I became an opera-lover

Even her fans will concede that she wasn’t much of an actress; a TIME Magazine critic once observed that she “achieved her best effects by standing majestically still,” which is only rarely my idea of good the­a­ter. I found her nearly unwatchable. Moreover, she had appallingly bad diction. I once heard her sing a familiar Christmas carol that I couldn’t even recognize until the radio announcer identified it after­ward.

Late in her career, she proudly told interviewers that she’d been work­ing hard to improve her diction, and in the pages of Opera News, my friend Brian Kellow will tell you she succeeded. Pace, Brian, she did not. I watched the telecast of the very Anna Bolena Brian praises, when Sutherland sang — with hardly any consonants at all — the fiery final aria, “Coppia iniqua,” which really demands that the consonants be spat.

I’m no Wagnerite, but I do believe in opera as total art. I can make allow­ances for weak stagecraft or some inattention to the text — heck, I’m even willing to forgive Brandon Jovanovich for mispronouncing his most famous aria in Carmen the other night (“La fleur que tu m’avais jetie”?) and for singing it too sweetly. Still, a singer has to make some kind of effort toward drama and poetry. I never had any indication that Sutherland did so.

Even on purely musical questions — the very areas where she ostensibly knew no peer — Sutherland disappointed me. She was indulged, I think, by her husband, the conductor Richard Bonynge; indeed, I’ve grown to admire some of her earlier recordings, with other, superior conductors. By the time I got interested in opera, Sutherland’s voice had begun to droop already; Bonynge actually seemed to exacerbate this flaw with soggy or sloppy tempo.

Like them or not, you had to buy their recordings, back in the day, because Bonynge and Sutherland so often tackled operas you couldn’t hear anywhere else. But as soon as other artists recorded Rodelinda and Hamlet, I got rid of my Sutherland albums.*

It’s possible I’d feel differently if I’d ever been in the room with the woman, where the size of her voice and the force of her personality might have moved me, as they haven’t on recordings, radio, and television. Mine is admittedly a minority response to her; I daresay I ought to have waited a longer interval before pronouncing it, when so many of my friends, like Brian, are heartbroken by Sutherland’s death. But in truth, I’m fed up with reading how “perfect” this woman was.

Nevertheless, when I listen to these friends — some of whom are sing­ers themselves, far greater artists than Sutherland ever was — I do feel a sadness not unlike that I feel for the passing of Shirley Verrett. Both women delivered undeniably thrilling experiences in opera to my friends and to thousands, perhaps millions of others. For me, however, both singers represent many missed opportunities — of different kinds.

*NOTE: Sutherland often recorded with Gabriel Bacquier. Yes, I’ll hold onto those albums.


Irishrover said...

You sum up perfectly my feelings towards Sutherland: a wonderful voice, yet so inexpressive that I cannot feel a thing. I also have a lot of friends who tried to convert me, but failed miserably. The concept of "prima la voce" in opera is just simply not my cup of tea. For me, opera must be an absolute experience of all arts, with singers being actors as well. If they fail to do so, well, the music will still be there, but this will not be enough for me -I don't know if you saw la Donna in Paris this past June, but I was horrified to see that this kind of productions still existed today. I cannot think of a better way to discourage people from going to the opera.

I'm a newbie at classical music(compared to your 1975, my 2008 is ridiculous!), so thanks for your posts that helps me catching up now and then :)

Mikebench said...

I can understand that Joan Sutherland can leave you cold; I, too, at times have wondered why people loved her so much, especially when compared to Beverly Sills, but the truth is, Sutherland had the more intrinsically beautiful instrument. (Bubbles' was a bit of an acquired taste, to be perfectly honest.) But to me the main difference between these two great ladies was that Sills always made me care and Sutherland didn't - at least not always...
Who could sing "Santo di patria" or the cabaletta "Carlo vive" as magnificently as Joan Sutherland?
Whether you like her or not, she is and will remain a singer of historic importance, just like Callas, Marilyn Horne and Sills, to name a few of the more important ones. Let's face it, if it hadn't been for the Bonynges, so much repertoire would have had to wait in order to be rediscovered - as you pointed out. A piece like Semiramide, which is now in the standard repertoire, might not have had its renaissance, had it not been for the Bonynges (and Marilyn Horne!)...
So, while I can agree with you that Joan Sutherland is not often the most expressive singer, you just cannot underestimate her HUGE influence on the way people sing and produce opera nowadays...

William V. Madison said...

Thanks for your comments, one and all.

I take your point about the beauty of Sutherland's instrument, versus the "acquired taste" of Sills' voice: my arrival in the opera audience coincided with the end of Sills' vocal sheen. It's likely that, if I hadn't been so caught up in her personality, her sound wouldn't have pleased me so much. Today, even through a haze of nostalgia, I can't listen very long to certain of her recordings: a phenomenon not unlike that which I experience with Sutherland's late-career albums. (Except that Sills gives me something beyond technique and timbre.) I say it again: if I'd listened to Sutherland earlier, I might feel differently about her.

I hope I do approach a correct estimation of Sutherland and Bonynge's influence, though given my lack of enthusiasm for their work, I'll probably never grasp the whole of their achievements. And I'll probably thank them for blazing the trail, even as I prefer to listen to other musicians.