Dame Joan Sutherland has climbed the sacrificial pyre as Bellini’s Druid priestess Norma 126 times--probably setting at least a modern record.
Her appearances with Opera Pacific, beginning Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, will mark immolations 127 to 130. Then she will fly off to Detroit to relight the pyre three times at Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theatre, another company run by Opera Pacific general director David DiChiera.
But the end of the sacrifices may be in sight. Sutherland, 62, has pegged 1991 as her retirement date.
“Pretty much so, I think,” Sutherland said after a recent morning rehearsal in Costa Mesa. “I certainly have not accepted any further engagements for opera performances. . . .
“There are plenty of young people around who are just dying to get out there, and I don’t see why I should hold the slot any longer. I’ve had it for over 40 years.”
But are any of them Sutherlands?
“That remains to be seen,” she said. “If they don’t get the chance, then who knows?”
Sutherland said she has developed “a certain staying power” with all the years of singing. “But of course, approaching the age that I am, it becomes a little more difficult to coordinate movement and voice,” she said. “One sort of feels one’s age sometimes.”
Indeed, some have remarked that time has taken its inevitable toll on the fabulous voice that led enthusiasts to dub her “La Stupenda.”
“I certainly sing parts of the Mad Scene in (Donizetti’s) ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ (transposed) down now,” she said. “But certain other things are still in tune. It depends. The voice varies from day to day as much as it did when I was younger. . . . Some days you can manage things and some days you can’t.”
She said “Norma” too will be sung lower.
“I’ve always said I didn’t like singing ‘Norma’ in the original high key, not so much because it was difficult vocally but because I felt it didn’t have the right sound. It didn’t seem to have as much compassion as the lower key. I feel that the sound is more dolce, more round, it has more sympathy, the lower key has. So we always do it in the lower key.”
(According to a statement from conductor Richard Bonynge, Bellini himself transposed “Casta diva” and “Mira, o Norma” from G to F for Giuditta Pasta, the first Norma; it is this version, largely followed since, according to Bonynge, that Sutherland will sing.)
“I don’t think people bother too much about transposing,” Sutherland added. “If you can sing well in one key and it’s difficult in the other, well, sing it in the key that’s comfortable.”
What about the purists?
“Well, the purists don’t have to sing, do they?”
Sutherland has been delighting purists and the public since singing in the Franco Zeffirelli production of “Lucia” at Covent Garden in 1959. That appearance proved the turning point of her career and made her a bel-canto superstar virtually overnight.
Since then, she attracted and helped further the careers of those who would go on to be major stars, including Luciano Pavarotti, Marilyn Horne and James Morris, and has sung with many other luminaries, including Montserrat Caballe, Carlo Bergonzi, Samuel Ramey, Sherrill Milnes, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Martti Talvela..
She may still be helping the careers of others. She arrives in Costa Mesa with a cast of virtual unknowns. Her Pollione is Cesar-Antonio Suarez; her Adalgisa is soprano Nova Thomas, a protege of Bonynge, Sutherland’s husband for 34 years and her concert partner for the past 4 decades.
Oroveso is Georgi Selezneev, a basso with the Bolshoi Theatre for the past 10 years, who will be making his American debut in this production.
“I really think you’ll find they’re very worthy,” she said about her Opera Pacific/Michigan Opera Theatre colleagues, adding that the casting was “a mutual agreement between David DiChiera and my husband.”
Sutherland said she has worked with Thomas and Suarez before, singing the duet “Mira, o Norma” with Thomas at the Royal Theater in London in May, and leading the “Don Giovanni” cast in Vancouver, Canada,in 1977, in which Suarez sang Don Ottavio.
(Suarez also sang opposite Beverly Sills in Bellini’s “I Puritani” in an ill-fated debut in 1977 at the San Francisco Opera. He has apparently recovered; he made his debut in December at La Scala in Milan in Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell.”)
Bonynge will conduct the “Norma” performances in Orange County and Detroit.
k. Working with Bonynge just makes things easier, Sutherland said. “It saves both of us a little bit of rehearsing because we know what each other are going to do.”
Sutherland’s vocal technique and artistry have rarely been questioned, but she has been plagued by criticism about her diction and acting.
“Sometimes in the high areas of voice, it’s not very easy to get the consonants out,” she said. “But I think that the criticism has snowballed. I’m sure that somebody said it once, and everybody has picked it up. . . . I’m sure because sometimes I hear other people singing the same repertoire and I’m damned if I know what they’re singing, and I know the words which is more, probably, than the critic does.”
As for the acting, Sutherland said: “It’s a bit difficult, I find, with some of the bel-canto pieces, particularly because they are static. . . . You cannot go tearing around all over the stage. . . . I don’t see what more you can do than try to color the voice with the meaning of what it is you’re singing.”
So don’t expect to see Sutherland march up the pyre in any off-beat stagings.
“I can’t stand updating or changing locales of operas,” she said. “This one is as it might have been performed in 1831, perhaps. But I can’t bear the thought of a sort of punk ‘Traviata’ or a ‘Rigoletto’ a la Mafia. “
Sutherland said she has few regrets about her career.
“I’ve had a wonderful career. It out-ran anything I ever expected. I just had the urge to sing at Covent Garden possibly because I was warned off so much that I was just determined to try. Everybody said I was crazy. After all, there were a lot of singers around, and why should they take me? And I said, if I don’t go to London and find out, I’ll never know, will I? So I went.”
The rest is history.
Bellini’s “Norma,” staged by John Pascoe for Joan Sutherland and conducted by Richard Bonynge, will be given Saturday at 8 p.m. and Feb. 14, 18 and 24 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, in Costa Mesa. Tickets: 25 to $50. Information: (714) 979-7000.