Joan Sutherland chats about her newest `big sing'

There was a time that when a beloved opera star announced a new role, the opera world waited to hear it in electrified anticipation. Some of this anticipation greeted Dame Joan Sutherland's announcement that she would be adding the title role of Donizetti's ``Anna Bolena'' to her repertoire, first in Toronto (with the Canadian National Opera) in 1984. She has since taken that production to Detroit and San Francisco. She has just finished a run in Chicago and will be seen in Houston this June. By all logic, it should have also been seen at the Metropolitan Opera here in New York. Unfortunately, the general manager and casting director

at the time (both of whom have since retired), did not think a new Sutherland role at the Met was necessary for the luster of the house.

So Miss Sutherland brought her ill-fated Anne Boleyn to Avery Fisher Hall for a concert, which was simulcast across the country on the PBS network last week. The concert, incidentally, was repeated in Boston Dec. 1 and will be heard at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., next Sunday.

In the hall, the evening was just about all it should have been. Tenor Jerry Hadley shone in Lord Richard Percy's music, which he sang with ardor, sensitivity, and unusual control of dynamic and long line. Judith Forst, as Jane Seymour, let us know that her soft-grained mezzo was fully able to command the nuance and emotional range of the demanding role. Miss Sutherland was in top form -- a certain sense of husbanding resources notwithstanding. The principals may have taken a while to warm up, but the f irst act gave them the chance to get ready for the dramatic confrontations of the infinitely more interesting second act. By the time the second act arrived the singers had, for the most part, established their individual timbres and artistic strengths so as to allow the subsequent dramatic and vocal fireworks to have real impact.

Miss Sutherland dominated the proceedings with a haunting account of the introspective aria of the final scene and some thrilling flashes of power and vocal virtuosity in the closing pages. Indeed, only bass Gregory Yurisich, as Henry VIII, seemed ill at ease and somewhat out of place in such an auspicious lineup.

I talked with Miss Sutherland and her husband, maestro Richard Bonynge, after one of the later rehearsals for the New York concert. I asked her what appealed most to her about the role. ``Hmmm,'' she replied, then laughed. ``I really was inveigled into doing it by Richard and Lotfi [Mansouri, artistic director of the Canadian National Opera and director of the production she is taking around the country]. I never thought I would get around to doing it. It's something that has come up many times, and we' ve never had the opportunity to do it.

``At this stage of my life, I didn't really want to learn such a large role -- it's such a huge role, and for me, at the moment, I find it much more taxing than [Bellini's] `Norma,' believe me, because it's much more varied, in a way. I enjoy singing it very much. But it is a big, big sing . . . for everyone, actually.''

The concert performances were cut back to accommodate the three-hour time slot on TV. The staged performances are considerably more complete, but still, repeat verses of arias and choruses are often cut because they sound anticlimactic the second time around. Miss Sutherland laughingly quipped to her husband, ``I wish you'd cut one of mine out.'' Mr. Bonynge noted, ``The older I get, the more I like cuts. I don't like to destroy an opera, but I think we're living in a different age now. Pe ople sit there for the whole time. In the old days, they didn't concentrate the way they do [today].''

Does Miss Sutherland find a concert performance a relief? ``I don't know. It feels very strange for both Judy and me, having done it together within the production, because there are a lot of arias where there are pauses and nothing happens.''

Before we parted, the subject of directors updating and otherwise tampering with operas came up. Miss Sutherland noted that ``this is one of the awful things about opera today. How can you possibly update `Traviata'? How can you possibly update `Les Huguenots,' because of its historical content -- whether it's right or wrong? It's too gimmicky. Those are for workshop sorts of productions. They are not for the real theater, I don't think.''

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