Chalet Monet: A Glorious Living History: Book Review

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BOOK REVIEW: Chalet Monet: Inside the Home of Dame Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge by Richard Bonynge, Melbourne Books, 2020

Welcome to Chalet Monet—and how effectively the cover of this dazzlingly illustrated book draws you in, straight onto the landing and then through to the Music Room, giving us a first glimpse of the treasures in store for us. Be prepared for a very extensive, very personal tour of the chalet, with the Maestro as your very own guide.

‘It's our job to make magic. Music can be a very subjective thing, but what I've always believed is that when people come to the theatre they should be immersed in magic, and if you don't get some great feeling of being taken out of yourself and put into another world, then we’re not doing our job.’ These words of Richard Bonynge may well apply to Chalet Monet, a house deeply immersed in magic. Certainly, as Marilyn Horne tells us in the Foreword ‘I can hardly wait to see all their wonderful things …’

Marilyn Horne, the celebrated American mezzo-soprano, first became aware of Joan Sutherland's voice back in 1959 when she heard a radio broadcast of ‘outstanding singers of the day’. Two years later both she and Joan made their New York debuts in Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda. Fortunately for us all, Richard had convinced Joan, whom he first met in Sydney in the late 1940s at a small concert in which they were both participating, that she belonged to bel canto, a lyrical style of operatic singing, rather than the dramatic repertoire of Wagner. The two Bellini debuts led to the beginning of a lifelong friendship with both Joan and Richard, and Marilyn Horne soon realised the latter was ‘a fanatical collector of just about anything’ as the Bonynges’ home in London was crammed with Richard’s finds, be they music memorabilia, porcelain figurines, paintings, prints or antique furniture.

Richard explains how this book came about, this one topic that had not yet been broached; the home that he and Joan had shared for so many decades. There had been books on their professional lives, on costume designs and theatrical postcards, but no book dealing with Richard’s passion for collecting and how these collections have been a wonderful source for understanding and acknowledging the importance of our ‘musical and artistic heritage’.

Chalet Monet is a family home, visited and stayed in by both family and friends, located in the Swiss village of Les Avants, one thousand metres above Lake Geneva. Fiona James, a mezzo-soprano who made her debut in 1988 with Opera Australia, and now an Artistic Director and General Manager of the Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge Foundation, writes of the history of the region, the French-speaking canton of Vaud, of the tiny railway station and the little red funicular, Les Avants hotel and cafe and the prestigious Le Chatelard Academy. She describes the idyllic countryside—‘the Switzerland one imagined from childhood stories with its sounds, quaint villages and majestic mountain scenery’. Fiona continues with the fairy-tale comparisons by describing the approach to the property and the welcome she received back in 2009, when she first made the acquaintance of the chalet and its fragile but fabulous contents, comparing the experience to walking onto the set of an opera or a 19th century drawing room.

Red and green predominate - they are the Sutherland and Bonynge colours. There are glorious displays of coloured glass, stunning views from every window, books, paintings, prints, rugs, china-ware—a positive cornucopia of delights. Fiona moves on to the structure of the house, with descriptions of the four floors, each with a specific purpose, yet the style is similar throughout—music room, bedrooms and bathrooms, study and library, office and attic, small rooms for shelved collections—plus two grand pianos. And then of course there are the gardens, with flowering shrubs, ferns, window boxes and pots, and the luscious greenery. The tennis court, now overgrown, where once, in the 60s and 70s, tennis parties were held.

‘Chalet Monet is a house with one thousand stories—it is a living history’ and ‘One gets the impression that every object in the house has some sort of story or significance and that they are all special to their owners’. Finally ‘Thank you, Richard, for allowing us to enter your private and colourful world’.

The Bonynges were originally Huguenots who fled to England in the late 16th century and granted land in County Clare in Southern Ireland in 1601, while Richard's mother hailed from a Yorkshire family.

By the age of four Richard was definitely showing some musical talent; from his father he inherited the ability to play the piano by ear, although he was not very adept at reading music. Lessons followed, and at thirteen he was awarded a scholarship to the NSW Conservatorium of Music by Lindley Evans, the South African/Australian pianist and composer. Encouraged and influenced by him, Richard studied Mozart and Chopin, and then, introduced to opera by Eugene Goossens, the English conductor and composer, the ‘gates of heaven’ opened for Richard!

The winner of many competitions, he gained much experience playing in clubs and concerts, and having met Joan in Sydney they went on to perform together several times. ‘I have been so lucky’—Richard was born with a prodigious musical instinct. In 1950 he was awarded a two year scholarship to London’s Royal College of Music, but for various reasons this did not work out as Richard had hoped and he left after one year. 1951 was the year he and Joan met up again, when she was awarded enough prize money—and presented more by an uncle—to set sail for London.

Lessons, coaching and accompanying followed and the two spent as much time as possible attending operas, ballets, concerts and the theatre, and often meeting the many famous dancers, actors and singers. Richard began working with Joan and it was then that he brought about the change from the drama of the Wagnerian style—the forcing of both the top and lower voice—to the musical style of the romantic composers such as Bellini, Mozart, Rossini and Donizetti, and therefore the more natural and more beautiful style that came so very easily to her. Professional engagements followed and an invitation to join the company of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, only one year after her arrival in London.

Joan and Richard were married in 1954 and two years later their son Adam was born. Throughout the 1950s Joan sang in a formidable list of operas—The Magic Flute, Norma, A Masked Ball, Marriage of Figaro, Rigoletto—to name only a few. She was a show-stopping Olympia—the doll—in The Tales of Hoffmann.  Joan met and/or worked with the likes of Maria Callas, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Franco Zeffirelli. By the end of the 50s her international career was well and truly established.

But it was not until 1962 that Richard began his career in conducting and that happened quite by accident when the conductor with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome, in which Joan would be performing, came down with a serious case of influenza and his back-up was, most unfortunately, hit by a taxi! Joan's agent and manager told Richard he was to conduct or else the concert would be cancelled. Horrified as he was, he knew all the repertoire, he was young and fit, he had luck and passion on his side: the concert was a huge success and what is more, he knew Joan's voice so very, very well.

With a combination of the two careers and a young son, life could be difficult and exhausting, but so very rewarding. Their lives were filled with performances, concerts, recordings, with Richard conducting and recording way beyond Joan's retirement in 1990. Her death occurred in October 2010 at Chalet Monet, where her presence and many, many happy memories are very much still with Richard. He remains busy with all sorts of projects, mentoring, visits, travelling, judging and awarding. Although missing his Australian family Europe has been his home and his life for so long—who knows what the future will bring.

But let us return to the early 1960s and how it was that the Bonynges came to own and to live in the chalet, how they met Noel Coward on board the ship they were on, heading for America and various professional engagements. Richard and Joan had fallen in love with an old villa in the south of Switzerland and had taken a five-year lease on it. However, due to one thing or another, purchasing it proved impossible. Coward encouraged them to find somewhere in the vicinity (and close to airports) and asked Richard to stay at his home, Chalet Coward, at Les Avants. After an unsuccessful week of searching Richard inquired about the chalet above Noel’s, where the position was perfect, the views stunning.

A telephone call and a visit later and a positively enviable deal was done—Chalet Monet was now the property of the Bonynges.

Some wonderful years in the early 1960s followed, holidays shared, Richard and Joan meeting so many interesting and glamorous actors and writers, Noel giving son Adam painting lessons, plus Richard working on an album of Noel's compositions - a marvellous friend, who died far too early. But what memories, and it was thanks to Noel Coward that Chalet Monet became the beautiful home that it is today.

The chalet was built around 1900, a sturdily constructed house, with two-feet thick stone walls covered in a dark stained wood - but far too small for the family and necessary staff. Two local architects worked with Richard and Joan to enlarge the house, the original facade was kept but a tower was added, windows altered, floors re-laid, and eventually, after two years of renovations and whilst managing a hectic schedule of performing and recording, the family was able to move in. Van-loads of furniture were brought across from London or taken out of nearby storage. Years later an internal lift was installed and years after that, Richard decided to have the whole chalet exterior repainted green, much to the dismay of the local authorities. However, Richard was victorious. Throughout this book we are treated to many beautiful images of the chalet and its surrounds and there are dozens of breathtaking double spreads.

Since 1964 Chalet Monet has seen many more changes, additions and improvements. Rooms were created or enlarged, but the Entrance Hall, on the ground floor, forms part of the original structure. Here Richard gives us histories of many of his prized paintings, portraits or studies of duchesses, dancers and singers, a wall displaying old song covers, shelves of vases and figurines. Not only are they described here but we can see for ourselves this glorious amassing of exquisite objects, as we move through the ground floor, from room to room. We learn all about particular items of furniture, the Tiffany style lamps, candelabra, displays of snuff boxes, costume designs and miniature paintings. There are endless lists of visiting friends and colleagues, singers and actors, artists and designers from all over the world. And then, of course, there are the books, many first editions with original bindings.

Richard treats us to a short history of the 19th century Spanish singer Maria Malibran, a singer with an extraordinary range of voice, who was perhaps best known for her portrayals of the heroines in Rossini’s works. Displayed are portraits and theatre posters relating to her and her career. Richard admits Malibran has had a great influence on his work, encouraging him to seek out long-forgotten scores, some of which have been revived and even have come to be performed regularly all over the world.

Following Malibran, we learn of Richard’s fascination with Jenny Lind, the soprano known as the Swedish Nightingale. She was the first singer he ‘discovered’ when he moved to Europe and he admits the chalet has almost become a Lind Museum—of figurines, books, music, posters and paintings. There is a glorious portrait of Lind, painted by the German artist, Eduard Magnus.

We move onto the Card Room, a very favourite room of Richard’s where he is often to be found at work on scores, writing letters, playing the odd game of cards. This room has sensational views of Lake Geneva and Rochers-de-Naye mountain, and the walls are lined with portraits—Catherine the Great and her husband, Georgiana the 18th century Duchess of Devonshire, Marie Taglioni, Lola Montez and other personages too numerous to mention. A golden clock with links to an early French opera Cendrillon, the score of which Richard eventually found and performed in 1998, in Moscow. He has always been passionate about lost or forgotten opera and ballet scores.

The Card Room also contains bronzes and figurines of dancers and actresses, there are clocks and vases, cabinets crammed with Staffordshire figures—plus a recently acquired bust of Joan, Richard writes of the discovery of so many of these treasures, the flea-markets, the tucked away shops, the reluctant dealers. Along with the many books, classics and antique editions, he has almost an entire collection of all that Noel Coward wrote, each with an individual dedication.

Moving on through to the Dining Room and the Kitchen, paintings and drawings of La Stupenda, in costumes that were designed for her many productions, line the walls. There are wonderful views from a large picture window—the little cog railway from Montreux climbs to the summit of the mountain, to a restaurant looking out onto a lake, and all around are steep, gloriously green hills. In a line along the windowsill are many pieces of coloured glass, bottles and flasks, decanters and jugs. Joan was responsible for the start of this particular obsession! Antique chairs are drawn up to the dining table—more paintings and porcelain figurines—all set against a striking and, predictably, colourful wallpaper. A large painting by Michael Stennet, the English costume designer and painter (who, very sadly, died only this year at the age of 74), features the family Bonynge, accompanied by Asta, their Bernese shepherd dog. Hanging vertically near the verandah door a wooden type-set drawer is filled with many tiny and rare objects, including some 19th century theatre memorabilia.

The Kitchen is briefly described—but this, Richard tells us, is Petra the cook's territory.

Paintings, including the works of two Australian artists, Loudon Sainthill and Kenneth Rowell, line the staircase which leads down to the Hallway and the Garden Floor below. Richard writes of changes and conversions—and we arrive at his Studio and the Library, two cellars and storage space for his ever-growing collection of DVDs, ballets, operas, films. He admits this Hallway is full to bursting—with paintings of conductors and composers, pianists and singers. And more snuff-boxes and statuettes and miniatures—an extraordinarily rich and varied cornucopia! Throughout, Richard regales us with tales of his discoveries, the history and sometimes challenges behind so many of these pieces, also musical and theatrical anecdotes—of Monserrat Cabelle and Luciano Pavarotti, for example.

Within the Studio there are shelves and shelves of music scores, medals and busts, figurines and even a decorative collection of eggs. His Bechstein piano is laden with photographs of family and friends, plus precious souvenirs. Joan loved needlepoint work and the chalet has many examples, on lovely old chairs, cushions and rugs. We are treated to a glimpse of the Napoleonic bed Richard sleeps in - and so very soundly apparently—surrounded by paintings and framed costume designs, books and ornaments.

Next to the Studio is the Yellow Library, bursting with biographies, books on music, scores autographed by their composers, and framed studies of remarkable singers and actors. The Library is a glorious shade of yellow with absolutely not an inch to spare for any application of wall-paper!

Extensions to the chalet include, naturally enough, a Music Room, a Greenhouse and a self-contained Guest Suite. Paintings line the staircase as we head towards the First Floor, Staffordshire figures are displayed in what were once the window embrasures of the original chalet's structure. Framed posters, a bronze statue of Joan, a marble bust of Liszt and shelf after shelf of CDs, vinyl records and operatic scores. Below a portrait of Joan, painted by the Australian June Mendoza, sits a boulle cabinet crammed with more scores, letters and memorabilia, topped off by more figurines and statuettes.

There are pages and pages illustrating and/or describing the Music Room, a very substantial space packed with Bonynge treasures. For decades Richard and Joan spent many long and productive hours on scores, practising, and even recording as the acoustics are ideal. Christmases were celebrated in here, with family and friends, including the Coward household, their next-door neighbours. The Steinway had belonged to Noel, and the blonde wood Erard piano hailed originally from Buckingham Palace. There are more paintings of Joan, by the Australian artists Judy Cassab and Robert Hannaford, and many of the chairs are covered in Joan’s meticulous petit point embroidery. This segment on the Music Room also includes a selection of anecdotes. This room and the little adjoining Greenhouse are a joy to behold.

Richard describes the apartment that came to be known as the Joan Sutherland Apartment, a set of rooms she loved, full of objects personal to her, paintings and photographs, gifts and souvenirs, a glass-topped cabinet displaying her many awards. A lovely light-filled room with views of Lake Geneva and French doors leading to a substantial balcony.

Within these rooms is a Dame Nellie Melba collection—Richard learnt that Melba stayed in Les Avants for two months, back in 1890, when she needed to cure herself of a nodule on her vocal cords. She stayed in the now demolished Hotel de Jaman, a short distance from the site of Chalet Monet.  A lovely link indeed!

The chalet’s main guest room has walls of deep green, setting off lithographs and photographs—mostly with an operatic theme—framed with Richard’s beloved birdseye maple, the beds are also of the same beautiful light wood, as is much of the furniture throughout the chalet.

Moving on and upwards, more portraits adorn the walls as we move from first to second floor and to two additional bedrooms. The first displays many mounted set and costume designs, hung above a striking 19th century sofa, a gift from dear friend Barbara Matera, an American costume and clothing designer of English birth. The wallpaper in here is a delightful floral 'confection' that you feel must surely be perfumed. An old Swiss cupboard, wonderfully decorated, has pride of place and contains box after box of jigsaw puzzles. The second bedroom is known as the Spanish Room, for the bed was discovered in, and transported from, Barcelona. Some Bolivian religious paintings, drawings and designs by the Russian-born Eugene Berman, and a wall given over entirely to books. Both Richard and Joan, when not working on scores, would read avidly. The vivid red window curtains frame a section of the forest—most windows in the chalet look out at the lake, the mountains or the little funicular.

A third bedroom was originally the office of Richard's secretary of forty years standing, Chester. Before his tragic paralysis in 2002 he had travelled with and looked after the Bonynges, hung wallpaper, did carpentry and all manner of jobs around their home. His death occurred in 2018.

So—more paintings and more designs, and shelves and shelves of DVDs. There are three other rooms that were in existence before the renovation—bedrooms for the housekeeper, the secretary and the room that was once that of son Adam.

At this particular point in the book we are treated to fabulous views from the chalet’s windows and images of the garden, over the four seasons. Spring is Richard's favourite, when flowers bloom and new leaves emerge, and when every conceivable shade of green is in evidence. Then Summer, with its wonderful sunsets, the sound of distant cowbells, plus the fact that the house with its solid brick walls ensures a perfect temperature within. The garden is ablaze with colour and many varieties of flowers, which are gloriously photographed here for us to enjoy. And then of course Autumn, and what a change there is to the general palette—with the leaves of the trees turning yellow, through to shades of orange, red and purple. Winter brings, not only snow, but deer, foxes, moles and every species of bird, noisily singing and demanding to be fed. Then, the snowbound chalet resembles something even more suggestive of a fairy-story, although the reality can be far from that when driveways and roads need to be cleared—with the exception of the road to the chalet, which doubles as a sled run with driving permitted only at certain hours. What a joy it is to sit in the warmth of the chalet and admire the snowy scenes presented outside!

Richard expands on his collections at this point, beginning with his passion for, and extensive knowledge of, the ballet. He mentions Helene Kirsova and her short-lived company based in Sydney, first encountered when he was ten, followed by memories regarding the Borovansky Company, the Ballets Russes seasons, the dancer Tamara Tchinarova, and later Margot Fonteyn, followed by the founding of the current Australian Ballet and its first artistic director Peggy van Praagh. In 1950 when Richard first arrived in London he was fortunate enough to be in at the very formation of the Festival Ballet and the two head company members, Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin, became his great mentors, teaching him so much in regards to both the style and tempi of ballet music and the recording of the same.

Joan and Richard saw all the great ballet companies of the world, all the ballet stars of the day—the English, French, Danish, Italian and American and later on, the Russian. Richard conducted in both Moscow and St Petersburg, not only for the opera, but also for the ballet. Galina Ulanova, Carla Fracci, the English dancers, ‘our own’ Robert Helpmann, and naturally, Rudolf Nureyev. Richard shares many anecdotes with us, including one which tells of his attachment to a set of Meissen porcelain figures, based on the original designs by Leon Bakst, for the 1910 ballet Carnaval. He also recounts his meeting with the superlative Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso, and the revival of a long-forgotten ballet La Flauta Magica with a score by the 19th century Riccardo Drigo, which Richard just happened to possess within his Anna Pavlova collection of music. Earlier this century he got to conduct this score for the Cuban Ballet Company, in Alicia's own production. Sadly, at nearly 99 and only a year ago, Alicia Alonso died—to Richard she was indeed a goddess. And here he admits that while enjoying both, these days he would rather go to the ballet than to the opera!

Richard writes of his love of collecting, the hows and whys and wherefores—he claims to be something of a magpie, well known for collecting objects, storing them in his nest and then enjoying them, in all their rich and colourful variety and splendour!

We now move on to pages of costume designs, prints and paintings dating from the 18th to the 20th centuries, more figurines with balletic, musical and theatrical themes—there is room at this point in the book for only a small sample. Rare theatre posters follow, and caricatures of Dame Joan by their dear, recently departed friend Michael Stennet.

As I write, and as Act IV begins—‘L'Opera’—I find it is, most appropriately, World Opera Day (which will be followed almost immediately by World Ballet Day). In early 1959 Joan Sutherland’s international career began in a production of Lucia di Lammermoor directed by that prince of theatrical directors and designers, Franco Zeffirelli. Richard writes of their many years of combined successes and their long friendship and collaboration. Zeffirelli died only last year at the age of 97, after a life filled with beauty and creativity.

Now we encounter pages and pages of photographs and special moments—Richard mentions those that have a special significance for him, but there are many, many more that could easily fill another volume. Family and friends, actors, singers, dancers, politicians, royalty, writers, directors, designers—the list is seemingly endless. Gala concerts where he conducted, Joan's Gala farewells in Sydney and London—what memories!

Richard and Joan had a wonderful working relationship with the record company Decca—they spent over fifty years with them, a most understanding company—the ‘Decca sound’ was considered to be the purest and the most natural. Over those years the Bonynges produced almost 240 commercial recordings and Richard goes on to list this collection, over the page we can see for ourselves almost one hundred record covers, and following these, the covers of many magazines featuring one or both of them. We read of the many awards and honours that they both received, there are acknowledgements relating to the production of this superb book, more names, and for many of the foregoing photographs, additional descriptions. There are brief biographies of both Joan and Richard and the book’s very passionate and artistic photographer, Dominique Bersier. Richard writes of his extended family and all the wonderful folk who worked for the two of them, personal assistants, cooks, gardeners and housekeepers, and wonders what the family would have done without them. He reflects that, all in all, what an amazing and truly lucky life it has been for both himself and Joan but also, how hard it is to believe that she has been gone for ten years—and how incredible that he should now be ninety!

Where did the time go? Richard asks himself.

Read 417 times Last modified on Tuesday, 29 December 2020 08:20
Judy Leech

Judy has had a twenty-two year career at the ABC Television Studios as a graphic designer, with occasional forays into children's book illustrations. This was followed by ten years working with the Rex Reid Dance Company on costume, set and props design. Since the late 1990s Judy has been closely involved, in a design capacity, with many of the annual musicals presented by Melbourne High and Mac.Robertson's Schools.