The Age of Bel CantoThe Age of Bel Canto

Joan Sutherland: soprano; Marilyn Horne: mezzosoprano; Richard Conrad: tenor

New Symphony Orchestra of London
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Richard Bonynge, conductor

Decca, 1964 (1996)

Even though Joan Sutherland’s autobiography A Prima Donna’s Progress is a compilation of dates and events with a short description rather than a confession, the Australian soprano wrote quite extensively about the recording sessions of The Age of Bel Canto. Recorded in June 1963, simultaneously with Sutherland’s rehearsals for Handel’s Julius Caesar, and divided into two discs, this recording features three outstanding singers of the 20th century – Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne and Richard Conrad – two orchestras and a chorus – the New Symphony Orchestra of London and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus – and a conductor – Richard Bonynge – who all seem in a state of grace to present twenty-two musical gems from Baroque to Bel Canto.

The Age of Bel Canto: the Programme

It is enough to have a quick look at the programme of The Age of Bel Canto to realize that its boundaries are wider than those of the “Bel Canto” in the strict sense of the word. The music of the 19th century and the three Bel Canto composers – Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti – are protagonists only in the second part. The Age of Bel Canto is a collection of 18th and 19th century vocal rarities (arias, duos and trios) which require extreme virtuosity on the singer’s part.

Apart from the three aforementioned composers, its programme include arias from operas written by important composers as Handel (Atalanta, Semele, Samson), Mozart (Il re pastore, Die Zauberflöte, Die Entführung aus dem Serail) and Verdi (Attila), but especially forgotten arias by less famous or neglected composers as Piccinni (La buona figliuola), Arne (Artaxerxes) and Auber (La Muette de Portici). The presence of Giovanni Bononcini (Astarto) is noteworthy because Sutherland dedicated to him another recording, where she performs highlights from his opera La Griselda.

The Age of Bel Canto: the Performance

Even though all three singers are exceptional artists and interpreters, Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne take the lion’s share. While for these two singers I have no negative remarks, Richard Conrad’s performance is less fine, as I will explain in the paragraph dedicated to him.

Joan Sutherland

Despite the fact that Joan Sutherland sings also arias where she reveals some introspection (as With plaintive notes from Samson or O zittre nicht from Die Zauberflöte), it is for her vocal acrobatics that she is really riveting. She is born to sing this repertoire – and to sing it flamboyantly.

Sutherland’s voice is perfect for colour, flexibility and smoothness which gives the impression of endless legato (as in the duet from Don Pasquale). Her technique and her breath control are sound to the point of being incredible. This is especially amazing when she has to sing a taxing aria as Furia di donna irata from Piccinni’s La buona figliuola with all its roulades and agility. She execute flights of coloratura with her usual aplomb, precision and ease, while her high notes are luminous.

The only, usual flaw is that her diction is unintelligible. Anyway, this is a trifle in comparison with what she achieves from the musical point of view.

Marilyn Horne

Marilyn Horne combines the qualities of her voice to her attentive and deep adherence to the text, so that, as in the recording of Verdi’s Requiem (again with Sutherland), the mezzo appears as the “conscience” of the work next to the primadonna’s trills and lavishness. However, dazzling technique, effortless sound and vocal clarity characterize her performance too, with the addition of clear phrasing in any language. Horne’s verve and splendid tone offer wonderful samples in Superbo di me stesso from Lampugnani’s Meraspe, in Il segreto per esser felici from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia and in Arditi’s Bolero. As for the duet from Rossini’s Semiramide, here the mezzo shows off her not inferior qualities as a deep and conscious interpreter.

Richard Conrad

Tenor Richard Conrad is a singer who does not lack musicianship. His performance, however, is somehow limited by a vocal style which is not sensational. The colour of his voice is poor in comparison with Sutherland’s lustrous tone or Horne’s burnished timbre. Something in his style is old-fashioned. He sings his high notes in falsetto (for example, as in the aria from Atalanta). The best part of his performance is that his commitment and his continuous effort to give meaning to what he sings never makes him apathetic.

Richard Bonynge’s Conduction

The Age of Bel Canto would not have been the same without Richard Bonynge’s sumptuous conduction. He elicits from the two orchestras the brightest colours possible and the tone is always lustrous. It seems that Bonynge’s aim is to give prominence to the most joyous side of this music, something he does with an expansive and majestic rendition.

The Age of Bel Canto: Conclusion

The Age of Bel Canto is one of the best recordings ever made. With its rare arias, famous singers and fine conductor, it is a continuous surprise and pleasure for the ears. The development of the vocal style is easy to follow thanks to its chronological progression. Moreover, the skill of the performers present the arias, duets and trios in the best possible way. Definitely, this is one of the best achievements in the recording history.

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