Susan Chilcott in Brussels

Written by: Colin Anderson

Not so much a review, more a blog!

12 June 2009, Crush Room, Royal Opera House, London – I arrive about 12.50 (for a start-time of 1). Not many people present at that particular moment; the only one I recognise is pianist Iain Burnside (Susan Chilcott’s regular accompanist). He comes over and says hello. I tell him my name, and I tell him his! (Fame!) Then I spot someone I chat to on occasions like this; a nice chap called Yehuda (of marketing and creative note, who does a few reviews, too). We exchange pleasantries, then he says hello to Susan Bullock who is in conversation with Susan Graham (I remind Miss G that I interviewed her a few years ago – a witty riposte ensues!).

Meanwhile Camille and Cédric of Cypres Records have introduced themselves (“I have something for you”, says Camille: it’s a CD!). Jonathan Dimbleby then arrives, closely followed by Antonio Pappano, music director of Royal Opera. I am in august company. My Gramophone colleague (if I may be so bold) Patrick O’Connor duly shows (well, I have written a few book reviews for that celebrated publication!). David Sigall then comes over and introduces himself; he was Susan Chilcott’s husband and agent. Also present are Susan’s father, her young son Hugh and Susan’s singing-teacher Mollie Petrie.

And it was for ‘Sue’ that we were all present. Much less so for the writer, given I never met her and, being honest, I didn’t know too much about her artistry, but clearly she meant a great deal to her family, friends and collaborators, and I think it is fair to say that colleagues also became friends with Susan; Tony Pappano made a moving speech to this effect (he remains “angry” at her taking) and it is he who conducts all the selections on the Cypres CD, Susan Chilcott in Brussels, excerpts from Peter Grimes, Otello, Ariadne auf Naxos, The Turn of the Screw and Wintermärchen in productions mounted by La Monnaie (Brussels) in the late 1990s when Pappano was music director.

Susan Chilcott, a “country girl” (she was born in Bath, in the west of England) had a tragically short life (8 July 1963 to 4 September 2003); she was but 40 when she succumbed to breast cancer. I borrow now from Peter de Caluwe’s booklet note (he is Director General of La Monnaie) that ‘Sue’ was a “true woman … a fragile and sensual artist … sensitive … full of humour … compassionate and straightforward … she both enchanted and enhanced the lives of all who came into contact with her.” That much one can sense in a picture of ‘Sue’ in the booklet, of her in casual pose (a delightful smile and welcoming eyes!).

But, forgetting the visuals, her singing touches the heart: there is a depth of characterisation and humanity present in the voice, an absorption into a character, and an intense recreation of it, on which the listener hangs. Particularly involving on this CD are three excerpts from Verdi’s Otello (35 minutes’ worth), Sue as Desdemona with Vladimir Galouzine in the title role; and there is also the ‘Embroidery Aria’ from Peter Grimes, a very ‘visual’ performance for all that it is sound-only.

I’m not quite sure why this launch was now, for the CD has been available for several months. But it is a handsome document of an outstanding artist. The recordings are of good broadcast quality, the booklet well made and including comments from Pappano and from Sir Charles Mackerras, the latter conducted Sue’s final operatic appearances (as Jenůfa in Janáček’s opera).

I would like to have met Susan Chilcott (probably for an interview); bel canto was not “her cup of tea”, she was “ambivalent” to Mozart (although she sung certain roles of his and was successful in them) and was particularly drawn to Britten, Janáček, Tchaikovsky and Verdi – but I am pleased to know her through these rather special performances.

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