Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sutherland and Coward

In moments of melancholy, when, for whatever reason, the heart requires a little balm, or the spirits need lifting, I reach for my deeply unfashionable recording of songs by Noël Coward that was made in London in 1966 by Dame Joan Sutherland and the National Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Richard Bonynge, with a cameo appearance by Coward himself—now happily available once more on CD (Decca 450 0142). The combination may sound counter-intuitive, that of the soigné playwright, cabaret artist, show-business all-rounder, and intimate friend of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on the one hand, and, on the other, one of the most brilliant and technically dazzling coloratura sopranos of our time, a no-nonsense Sydney-sider. Yet it worked then, and I think it still works today. I gather they were neighbors in Switzerland, and were clearly fond of each other. Handled any differently, Coward’s light musical comedy might have been to Joan Sutherland as tap-dancing is to Peter Grimes. Yet the orchestration is lush but not heavy, and even occasionally ironic, so the chemistry is good. True, there are exquisitely unintended moments when certain lyrics mesh somewhat curiously with circumstance, such as the passage at the beginning of “Dearest Love,” from Operette (1938), when, with emphasis, Noël Coward speaks the lines “I saw you turn away, and, for a while, my poor heart drooped and faltered / And then I saw your strange, elusive smile, and all my life was altered.” Generally radiant, and full of warmth, generosity, good humor and common sense, Dame Joan’s smile could hardly be described as strange, or even, for that matter, elusive, even when certain of her roles required such a thing. Still, I think this simply adds to the charm of the piece. Meanwhile Sutherland’s rendition of “This is a Changing World” from Bitter Sweet (1929) combines the full grandeur of her voice, in its absolute prime, with an evidently instinctive lightness of touch, and lifts the whole thing onto an altogether different plane, in other words it sails over the high hurdle labeled art. I find it impossible to come away from all this without a spring in my step, or a sparkle. I suppose other people get the same thing from Beyoncé, Adele, or Lady Gaga, but I rather doubt it.

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