The Australian conductor Richard Alan Bonynge has been a leader in the revival of interest in the bel canto opera of the first half of the nineteenth century.
When he studied piano in the New South Wales Conservatorium in Australia, his teacher was Lindley Evans, once accompanist to the great Australian soprano Nellie Melba, whose repertoire included bel canto parts. When Bonynge went to England he studied with Herbert Freyer and became interested in vocal technique. When the Royal College of Music turned him down for its conducting course, he resigned his scholarship and became a private vocal coach.
Another young Australian, soprano Joan Sutherland, hired him. Bonynge realized that her high, strong voice was suited for the "bel canto" works (flowing, virtuosic "beautiful singing") of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, an operatic repertoire until recently considered outdated. Sutherland and Bonynge were married in 1954. Throughout the 1950s, as Sutherland began to gain an audience, he studied the operas she was slated to perform, and coached her in them. Sutherland had a breakout success as Donizetti's Lucia at Covent Garden in 1959. In 1963 Bonynge began conducting some of his wife's operatic performances. The first were Gounod's "Faust" in Vancouver in 1963 and Bellini's "La Sonnambula" in San Francisco in the same year. He debuted at Covent Garden in March, 1964 with "I puritani." As artistic director and chief conductor of the Sutherland/Williamson International Grand Opera Company he toured Australia with Sutherland in 1964, helping to stimulate interest in opera in his home country.
His career may have been launched due to his association with his wife, but it was founded on his deep knowledge of the repertoire and performing practice of the bel canto. He provided for the operas of that and earlier periods accurate information as to proper ornamentation, and correctly used a harpsichord continuo in the earlier works.
Bonynge made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1966 with "Lucia di Lammermoor," and conducted many of Sutherland's classic full opera recordings, in addition to ballet scores of the nineteenth century, including the first complete recording of Delibes' "Sylvia.." He was conductor of the Australian Opera in Sydney from 1976 to 1986. He remained active as a conductor of Sutherland's retirement, and in the 1990s has collaborated on records with soprano Sumi Jo. ~ Joseph Stevenson
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