Joan Sutherland on form

A while back I reviewed the train wreck that is the CBC recording of Joan Sutherland in Norma. Three years later the Canadian Opera Company and the CBC tried again with a recording of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. As a recording and a production it has its limitations but it’s not a disaster and is enjoyable in many ways.

The production, inevitably, is by Lotfi Mansouri and is best described as overblown Tudor or, perhaps, The Borgias on meth. There is more bling than you can possibly imagine and much of the time the characters are wearing so much fur that they look like they are being devoured greedily by a tribble. There are live dogs and horses. Perhaps it’s best summed up by Henry’s opening appearance. He is wearing bright red trousers, a shirt open to the waist, a gold chain and approximately three bears worth of fur (no Goldilocks). James Morris is one of the few people who could even remotely get away with it. Excess aside there’s little to excite in the production and much of it is very dark.

The cast is stellar. One can question the wisdom of a 58 year old playing the beautiful young queen who causes a king to split with Rome and even the most charitable would surely not claim that Ms. Sutherland looks the part but it is an amazing voice and this time, unlike Norma she’s on top form. Jane Seymour is the the very able Judith Forst and the king is played by James Morris, perhaps at this time the reigning Wotan and not the most obvious choice for a bel canto piece. He sings and acts very well though and, at 6 foot 5 inches, may perhaps have been the only baritone of the day who could look credible as Henry opposite Sutherland and Forst. Michael Myers is an effective Percy with a solid Italianate sound. Janet Stubbs is adequate as Smeaton and there is a cameo appearance by a young Ben Heppner as Hervey. This may well be the only time Morris and Heppner appeared together in Donizetti! Orchestra and chorus sound OK within the limits of the sound quality and Richard Bonynge conducts as you’ld expect. There’s a lot of annoying, intrusive, applause typically starting before the music stops and a ridiculous number of post scene, post act curtain calls. Still, there is also some pretty amazing bel canto singing.

Technically, unfortunately, this is no better than the Norma. Sound is a rather thin, hollowed out mono, though one gets used to it, and the picture is, at best, TV quality of the era, Norman Campbell directs for video and tried to do justice to Mansouri’s broader stage pictures but long shots just dissolve into mush because of the lousy picture and dodgy lighting. There are hard coded English subtitles, no extras and documentation is limited to an insert with a chapter listing.

All in all, an interesting historical document that is watchable despite its obvious flaws.

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4 thoughts on “Joan Sutherland on form

  1. They don’t do costumes quite like that anymore, do they! (Henry in all the fur with the open shirt and necklaces and bare chest – this seems unwittingly almost campy.)

      • Very true. I’ve never watched The Borgias but I’ve run across enough of the promo material that I think I have a sense of it. I watched two episodes of The Tudors, though, with another historian friend of mine, and we spent the whole time alternately giggling or engaging in beer-enhanced rants about anachronism. It was terrific fun, but probably not in the way the producers of the show intended.

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