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Diva Returns : Sutherland Sings Arias In Pasadena

January 21, 1987|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

Don't believe what you read in the papers. Dame Joan Sutherland isn't exactly "La Stupenda" anymore. Damn those infernal hype labels anyway.

The fact that Sutherland is, at 60, a bit past her prime can be no cause for embarrassment, much less surprise. Her place in musical history is secure.

Supported, stretched and abetted by Richard Bonynge, the musical Svengali she happened to marry, Sutherland helped remind a grateful world of the vitality in Baroque opera. She offered a dazzling alternative to Maria Callas in the dramatic bel-canto repertory.

She turned her back on the popular conception of the chirping mini-diva and proved that even big, thick and luscious voices can sing very high, very fast and very florid.

Somehow she fused the vocal opulence of a Ponselle with the agility of a Galli-Curci. It was, and is, an extraordinary feat.

Toughened churls complained, from time to time, about her placidity or about her tendency to favor vowels over consonants. Some perfectionists griped that she tended to make even the happiest music sound droopy.

But everyone agreed that Sutherland was a unique phenomenon, the stylish mistress of a great voice and a great technique.

Monday night, 25 years after her local debut as "Lucia di Lammermoor" with the San Francisco Opera at Shrine Auditorium, Sutherland sang a quintet of big and arduous arias to the rapturous approval of the devout at Pasadena Civic Auditorium.

Her repertory for the occasion sampled characteristic showpieces by Bellini, Ambroise Thomas and Luigi and/or Federico Ricci. The obvious climax of the program, however, took the ornate and nostalgic form of the Mad Scene from "Lucia." A calling card is a calling card is a calling card . . . .

Not even a supersoprano can sing an autumnal Lucia with the freshness and ease that elevated her art at springtime. The Sutherland of the 1980s makes a few understandable concessions. She opts for downward transpositions. She simplifies some of the ornamental flights. She takes breaths where none used to be necessary. The passage of time, moreover, has dried her tone and robbed it, to a degree, of steadiness.

Does it matter? Not much.

Sutherland still sings with remarkable ease, evenness and accuracy, with new-found warmth at mid-range and with pervasive authority. She still commands an unrivaled trill, in all registers and at all dynamic levels. She still knows how to float and shade a phrase with compelling grace.

And, not incidentally, she still knows how to make circus music sound refined.

Measured by the highest Sutherland standard of yore, her Lucia on this occasion may have been tarnished. Nevertheless, it was pretty wonderful by anyone else's standard.

The diva opened her portion of the proceedings with a somewhat rusty account of Norma's "Casta Diva," followed by a somewhat labored rendition of Ophelia's Mad Scene. Matters improved considerably after intermission; first with "Qui la voce" from "I Puritani" (complete with a slightly lowered, and slowered, cabaletta), then with the pretty terminal platitudes of the loony lady of Lammermoor.

Encore time brought a delirious ditty from the Ricci brothers' long forgotten melodramma fantastico-giocoso of 1850, "Crispino e la Comare." With it came a welcome injection of humor, perhaps even staccato self-mockery.

Leading the expanded L.A. Chamber Orchestra (now Southern California's premier opera ensemble), Bonynge accompanied the prima donna most sympathetically. On his own, he followed characteristically trivial and dainty pursuits: the overtures to "Don Pasquale," Herold's "Zampa" and Maillart's "Les Dragons de Vilars."

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