Richard Bonynge, Maestro of Bel Canto

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The company premiere of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena that inaugurates the 2011-2012 season at the Metropolitan Opera on Monday is a cause for celebration and reflection for those of us with long memories.

One of the hallmarks of the Peter Gelb era has been a marked increase in the presentation of bel canto works. This is a positive development because I believe there is no better style of opera than bel canto. Though quite hard to sing convincingly, bel canto also shows off beautiful voices and singing among those who have the gift. It is congenial to younger artists who, until recently, accepted offers to sing voice-wrecking heavier repertory because that was all that was available.

Many New Yorkers, even those who love the Met right or wrong, lamented for decades that their opera company almost never did anything but the most famous works by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. While Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Lucia di Lammermoor were always with us, bel canto lovers were underserved at the Met and, since the retirement of Beverly Sills, the same could be said of the New York City Opera, which is where those of us who love bel canto took refuge. In recent decades, plenty of bel canto was available in Europe, where singers such as Edita Gruberova, Vesselina Kasarova, Eva Mei, Luciana Serra, Patrizia Ciofi, Daniela Barcellona and the young Juan Diego Flórez ruled the stages.

Bel canto, which requires excellent vocal technique, sophisticated use of language, and spontaneity in performing music that requires considerable practice to master, was largely ignored until the famous bel canto revival that began after World War II when maestro Tullio Serafin found a willing pupil in the young Maria Callas. She brought dramatic insight to roles that, until that point, were more about standing and singing prettily. For all of her gifts, though, Callas’s singing could sound effortful rather than free.

The next, and most glorious, phase in the revival came when soprano Joan Sutherland (1926-2010) met fellow Australian Richard Bonynge (1930-), who became her coach and, in 1954, her husband. Sutherland, who had a large, powerful voice and a comparable frame, was deemed a natural for the heavy dramatic roles of Richard Wagner. Bonynge, who was precociously talented and scholarly, recognized in Sutherland the potential for singing roles that Callas had only begun to explore, except with more vocal security and brilliance. The accuracy of her trills, pitch and notes was stunning, even more so when delivered in a voice of such size and beauty.

Although opera managers and critics felt that a great Wagnerian career was being stunted in favor of repertory that, at the time, had little currency with audiences, Sutherland triumphed in rare roles such as Donizetti’s Emilia di Liverpool and Handel’s Alcina, both of which she studied with her husband. She became a superstar on February 17, 1959 when she played Lucia di Lammermoor for the first time, in a production in London conducted by Serafin and directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Her American debut was in Dallas, as Alcina, in 1960, and she made her Met debut on November 26, 1961 as Lucia, conducted by Silvio Varviso and co-starring Richard Tucker.

A Unique Collaboration

Somewhere in the process, the perception of Bonynge among many people was as an appendage to his wife rather than a full partner in work as well as marriage. I was fortunate to know this wonderful couple starting in 1982 and there was no question that they were a collaborative team. If anything, his passion for music was greater than hers, and it was he who found roles that not only suited her talents but pushed her in directions she would never have gone on her own. And in an era when London/Decca underwrote the recording of anything Sutherland sang, the result is we have a miraculous legacy of rare and popular operas by Handel, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Massenet, Delibes, Thomas, Meyerbeer and others. 

When I teach this music, I inevitably start with the classic recording, The Art of the Prima Donna, perhaps the most astonishing recording of arias I know. Although conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli (with the orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden), there is no question that the choice of music and the preparation of the soprano were Bonynge’s.

It is a strange phenomenon in the opera world, which I will explore in a future post, that when both members of a couple work in this field, one of them is often expected to defer to the career of the other. Nowadays, couples such as Anna Netrebko (tonight’s Anna Bolena, pictured above) and Erwin Schrott or Olga Borodina and Ildar Abdrazakov (tonight’s Henry VIII), where both have thriving careers are the exceptions rather than the rule.

There was no question that Sutherland was in a category of one. Also, though, there was no doubt that Bonynge was crucial in making her the artist she was. His desire to be a conductor in a full production was only realized on October 17, 1963 when he led Sutherland’s first performance as Norma (with, I believe, Marilyn Horne as Adalgisa) at the Vancouver Opera. From this point forward, they worked together almost exclusively. 

This led to grumbling in some quarters that if you wanted Joan you also had to take Ricky. It meant that he did not necessarily get the critical praise and work offers he deserved. Bonynge had few offers to conduct operas that did not feature his wife, although in the early years after his December 12, 1966 Met debut leading Lucia, he did conduct Orfeo ed Euridice with Grace Bumbry (who once told me that her silver cape and boots made her look like “Muhammed Ali before a fight”) and Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Teresa Berganza, one of the very first performances taped for international telecast.

We are fortunate that, when Bonynge found a new role for his wife, opera companies in Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego and Sydney agreed to create productions the couple would then take on tour to cities where they were made welcome. New Yorkers did not get to hear a lot of these roles, apart from Massenet’s Esclarmonde, a triumph in 1976. We heard Sutherland frequently as Lucia and Violetta, as well as Elvira (I Puritani), Amina (La Sonnambula), Leonora (Il Trovatore), the four heroines of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, and her delightful comic creation of Marie in La Fille du Régiment.

We did not hear Sutherland as Rossini’s Semiramide (it came to the Met in 1992 with Horne and June Anderson), but her performance of the aria “Bel Raggio Lusinghier” with Bonynge conducting at the Met’s Centennial Gala (October 22, 1983) showed us what we missed. I stood in the wings as she sang this and was uncharacteristically speechless afterward.

A Precious Resource

I remember well that the Bonynges originated a production of Anna Bolena in Toronto in 1984 and planned to tour it to cities around the world. They approached the Met and were rebuffed. There had been a history of contractual discord between the Met and Sutherland, and it was shocking that this production, which surely would sell every seat for every performance, was not presented. I flew to Chicago to see it, and am glad I did. The opera finally reaches the Met this season, and the Met intends to stage Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda in future seasons. This trio of Donizetti operas is known as “The Three Queens,” and anyone who saw Beverly Sills perform them at the New York City Opera knows how sublime they are.

In addition to his impact on Sutherland, Bonynge has a great ear for singers and developed a troupe of colleagues who often performed with his wife. Marilyn Horne had already established herself, but her collaboration with the Bonynges (especially in Norma) became a landmark. It was the Bonynges who cultivated the young Luciano Pavarotti and helped mould his raw talent to make him a great artist and a star. They worked with Alfredo Kraus, Sherrill Milnes, James Morris, Samuel Ramey and other superb artists.

Through the years, Bonynge trained many fine young singers, pursued his scholarly research and, following Sutherland’s retirement, conducted when asked in places such as Miami, Detroit and Sydney. Just this past June, he led an acclaimed Don Pasquale at the Holland Park Opera in London.

Bonynge has made spectacular contributions to opera and still has a lot to offer. He has not appeared at the Met in two decades. Given that the company has now assigned increased importance to the bel canto repertory, it would be a smart move to engage Richard Bonynge to teach and, I would hope, conduct. This would be an important investment in the Met’s future.

Watch Richard Bonynge in a 1986 television interview:

Photos: Anna Netrebko as Anna Boleno at the Met; Joan Sutherland as Lucia in an undated publicity photo.