What the maestro found
Conductor Richard Bonynge keeps a schedule that would challenge a man half his age. The 77-year-old trots the globe conducting opera and ballet, makes records and undertakes scholarships. Though based in Switzerland, the Sydney-born conductor maintains strong links with Australia, most recently conducting Opera Australia’s Barber of Seville. He has engagements already booked in years ahead. Tall and poised, Bonynge looks every bit the maestro but with an easygoing charm that matches the light, graceful style of his conducting.
On his visit last year, the 19th-century chapel and stately rooms of a boarding-school in Sydney’s Glebe [St. Scholastica] were cluttered with sound desks and microphones, transformed into a studio for his latest recording project, a selection of unknown English and Italian arias from the 18th century, performed by soprano Deborah Riedel. Unearthing ‘new olds’ has been a hobby for decades since he discovered a huge amount of unknown repertoire, even original manuscripts by famous composers such as Handel, gathering dust in bookshops and libraries.
Indeed, Bonynge’s hobby is largely responsible for the renaissance of 19th-century bel canto opera, which he and his wife, Dame Joan Sutherland, from the mid-1960s on, triumphantly demonstrated was the equal of warhorses by Verdi and Puccini. This floridly virtuosic music showcased Sutherland’s powerful and flexible voice and the novelty of the repertoire intrigued audiences.
A quick survey of the classical CD racks at your local store will reveal the paucity of quirky or unfamiliar repertoire. Most large classical labels tend towards a great classics conservatism, releasing re-recordings of the same cash-cow ‘core’ repertoire over and over again. Enter award-winning Melbourne-based label Melba Recordings, which shares Bonynge’s interest in more obscure parts of the operatic repertoire.
Melba has already produced seven discs with Bonynge and leading local singers. His commitment to showcasing and developing the voice has been a hallmark of his career, as has his enthusiasm to make records. “Richard Bonynge was the reason Melba Recordings was created,” Melba CEO Maria Vandamme says of the “close and fruitful” relationship the label has with the conductor. “Richard wanted to record Massenet, so I set up the label to do it. He has a passion for recording and [this] makes the music come to life in the studio.”
Bonynge says that the music on his new disc to be released in September [Cherry Ripe] has been neglected not because it wants for quality but because tastes changed. And while names such as Wallace, Paisiello, Hook and Johann Christian Bach probably won’t ring any bells for casual music-lovers, Bonynge’s first priority was to make a recording that would be, above all, enjoyable.
Robert W. Murray
The Australian Financial Review Magazine