Sutherland as Tosca and me forgetting Maria Callas for a moment.

After all the obituaries of the great Australian soprano, including my quite personal recollections last week here on this site, I thought i had said my last words on Joan Sutherland but then I came across this clip on Utube singing part of act two from puccini’s opera Tosca – a part forever associated with that other great soprano, Sutherland’s near contemporary, Maria Callas who was also a great Lucia in Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor.

Now that sadly both prima donnas have left us, maybe it is time to stop taking sides on who was better at what. I loved Sutherland in Lucia and will always find it near impossible to hear anyone else sing it even though I respected Callas’s dramatic intensity and control over her sensational but wayward voice in the part.

Simmilarly, having only heard Sutherland tackle the act two aria from Tosca, “Vissi d’arte”, I could never imagine her singing the part on stage and I will always love Maria Callas in that part more than in anything else that she did.

It was a surprize for me then to come across this clip made in 1968 when Sutherland sang part of that second act with the sensational, Italian baritone, Tito Gobbi as Baron Scarpia, the evil chief of the Roman police who wants to have his way with her as the price of releasing her lover. Gobbi, still the supreme Scarpia played the role many times with Callas but this short scene was his only time singing any of the role with Joan Sutherland.

I dreaded seeing it thinking that the comparison between the prima donnas would be odious and unfair but….yay! …..the Australian did good.

She would never match Callas as an actress, of course, no other soprano ever has, but she is perfectly good in the part and a lot better than many other sopranos with much less voice. Callas was unique in her greatness as an actress on the operatic stage and, it is somehow a distraction for any of us to look for anyone else to match her art.

Sutherland was a big woman with a big voice and she was capable of singing anyone off the stage in pure vocal terms. She struggled to bring dramatic intensity to her physical movements and preferred to compensate by doing it all with the voice. She was taller than Gobbi just as she was usually taller than many of the tenors that she sang with on stage even in their customary platform heels and she developed that habit of bending forward and scrunching herself up but, just as her facial expressions are familiar from similar situations of anguish in hundreds of her other roles, she does more than enough to give us  a dramatic account of Floria Tosca’s predicament and, of course, her’s is a sensational account of the music with none of Maria Callas’ sour vocal difficulties and a beauty of tone that is sustained throughout her range with, as you can hear when comparing the size of the voice with Gobbi’s, a voice that was thrillingly gigantic too.

When Gobbi suggested that they do the part together on tour, she refused knowing that she had many other opportunities of showing of her accomplishments without tempting providence in the role of her greatest rival for greatest soprano of the Twentieth Century. The relatively few Puccini roles that she took on stage was a disappointment – I would have loved to see her Princess Turandot – but she knew what she was doing and we should all be grateful for what she gave us.

I regret that we have no one of the calibre of Sutherland or Callas today and that we are unlikely ever to hear their like again so I have put my prejudices behind me and just enjoyed this scene for what it is – operatic genius. I suggest you do the same.

Tito Gobbi, by the way, right at the end of his career when he did this can show us all how powerful opera can be when acting comes  together in both voice and body – he too was unique.

Oh yes and that Oakleys’ For Sale sign across the road. Yep, still there in spite of their promise.

My novel, Stephen Dearsley’s Summer Of Love, was published  on 31 October 2013. It is the story of a young fogey living in Brighton in 1967 who has a lot to learn when the flowering hippie counter culture changes him and the world around him.
You can  pre-order the book from the publishers, Ward Wood Publishing:
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  1. Even her greatest fan wouldn't say that Sutherland had good diction: she does things to vowels that they don't deserve. Her acting is variable, and she is a bit hampered by the fact that she looks so damned hearty – her Tosca would have felled Scarpia with a decent uppercut some time ago, but the sound is tremendous.

    Although famed for lots of the heavy stuff, I prefer her at her more jolly: "Da tempeste" just melts as she glides around it.

    A wonderful sound, indeed.

  2. I love her Handel singing too Bren. The Tosca was a surprize though – even though this is a bit like faint praise – I thought, well, Floria Tosca is meant to be a Prima Donna and Sutherland was undoubtedly a Prima Donna….therefore…..etc. etc. etc.

    Baron Scarpia probably had a taste for larger than life ladies if he was drawn to opera singers after-all.

    So, trying to be frantically logical here, Sutherland is being type-cast as Tosca.

    I always disagree with you, as you know, over phrases, if I mostly agree with you on most other things, like "but the sound is tremendous" – the "but" seems so ironic when put in front of the rest of the statement.

    You are probably too young to have heard her in her prime but tremendous is so right…..I have never heard anything like it. I know the words to all the stuff she sang so I was never bothered about her Australian-Italian diction – in fact I loved it!

    All I was trying to say here was that both Callas and Sutherland have now left us so let's remember them both for their sensational talents. They rank with the greatest singers that have ever lived no matter how many quibbles we could direct at them both. We were lucky to have heard them and, I repeat, we will never hear their like again most probably..

  3. 'But' is not ironic at all: it's saying that although there are some weaknesses in Sutherland's technique, the sheer quality of sound overcomes everything. That is a 'but' of wonder.

    Interestingly, although people rave about Callas, I don't find she engages me emotionally as much as, say, Sutherland. I think she is great, but my response is cerebral rather than emotional.

    If it comes to the emotional connection, it's singers like von Stade and de los Angeles who do it for me.

  4. Bren, I have always loved von Stade and de los Angeles too…both great artists without doubt who are also great communicators with real sensitivity and sincerity of expression….and lovely sensual voices of course.

    Also, I am pleased that you have clarified your "but" if you will pardon the expression!

  5. Sutherland will always remain the greatest singer in recorded history, in my opinion; no one else had a voice of that size, beauty, flexibility and technical brilliance and the ability to produce a thrilling sound. She possessed the best trill of all time, and she certainly could portray emotion and heart with her voice more so than her body. I love Callas as well, but for different reasons: the brilliance of her interpretation, her great acting skills and the instantly recognizable sound of her voice, which could be ugly and beautiful within the same phrase. She loved attention and controversy, two things Sutherland had no interest in. So, two great divas, both to be admired for their artistry and devotion to the music. They will never be replaced or bettered.

  6. Dear WolfieWolfgang,

    If I'm correct, Sutherland only sang two Puccini roles onstage: Giorgetta in TABARRO, as a student at London's Royal College of Music (that performance finally convinced Covent Garden to hire her) and Suor Angelica (Sydney 1977 & the Decca/London recording of the following year). In a 1985 Chicago Tribune interview (easy to find online), she and Bonynge mentioned that Tosca and the FORZA DEL DESTINO Leonora "have been in and out of the shelves", but she never performed the complete role. The justly famous TURANDOT recording led to people suggesting she do it onstage, but she never accepted. There is also video footage of her singing Mimì's act III "addio", but again, not the complete role.

    Fun facts: because singers in their early career years have to accept whatever roles they're offered, it's amusing to see just what jobs they were invited for before they became well-known. Edita Gruberova sang Kate Pinkerton (an early role in Wien and her only Puccini part)! Beverly Sills sang Tosca, Musetta, Mimì AND the three ladies of the TRITTICO (Giorgetta, Angelica, Lauretta) before ever singing her first Lucia di Lammermoor!!

  7. Thanks for this bellini – good to hear your comments on this site. I'd have loved to hear Sutherland do Turandot in the theatre even if the opera is a weird mix of the sublime and the distasteful. Actually, those few early recordings of Sutherland from the late 1950s are a tantalising glimpse of how wonderful she would have been some more of the mainstream soprano roles…I'm not complaining though, those dramatic coloratura performances were sensational.

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