Farewell, Dame Joan!

Portrait of Dame Joan Sutherland, taken in New York (1975)
Allan Warren

Sometimes, shrouded in pounds of silk, taffeta, and jeweled headdress,  she looked faintly ridiculous standing there on the stage, a large and commanding presence with a lasting, exaggerated grimace.  But, when she opened her mouth and sang, the angels in heaven fell silent.   Now she has fallen silent and joined them.   Dame Joan Sutherland, called “The Voice of the Century” by Luciano Pavarotti, died last Sunday in Switzerland.

Twentieth-century opera was dominated by a handful of great sopranos – Maria Callas, with her dark, edgy sound and electrifying stage presence; Renata Tebaldi, with her beautifully pure, lyric voice and dramatic ability; Birgit Nilsson, with a stentorian voice capable of such effortless ascent that it soared stratospherically above any orchestra.  The great opera stages of the world – La Scala, Covent Garden, the Met, the Theatro Colon were theirs —- and Joan Sutherland’s as well.

Joan Sutherland, a girl from Australia with an unusually powerful voice, trained by her mother and music teachers in her native land, made her way to London, spent a year at the Royal College of Music, renewed her acquaintance with another music student from Australia, Richard Bonynge, and auditioned for the Royal Opera.  On the third try (what was wrong with their ears?), she made it – and the rest. . .

Coloratura, Joan Sutherland sings an aria from Bellini’s “I Puritani.” This is Young Sutherland at her best.

Sutherland and Bonynge would marry, he would direct her away from the heavier German operatic fare towards the Italian bel canto and coloratura repertory that would bring her international fame with a voice and technique that would enthrall audiences everywhere in a career that lasted four decades.  She made the great roles written by Bellini (Lucrezia Borgia, Anna Bolena, Norma),  Donizetti (Lucia, Marie) and Verdi (Violetta) her own.  None of her rivals could toss off those glittering high notes, execute those extraordinary coloratura cascades  with the seemingly effortless abandon of Joan Sutherland.  When she turned her voice to lesser operas – Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Massenet’s Esclarmonde and Le Roi de Lahore, Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur – she burnished them to a new luster.

And when she was joined by that young Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti – ah, a match made in heaven.  He credited her with teaching him how to breathe, and his voice became what we all now remember.  She was an ethereal Violetta to his Alfredo, a magnificent Lucia to his Edgardo, a melting Desdemona to his Otello.  When they were joined by the brilliant American mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, the fireworks never stopped.  Their Lincoln Center performances were sold out in minutes.

Sutherland’s voice, with its three-octave range and gorgeous middle register, brought down the house wherever she sang.  Her apparently effortless ability to hit Cs, Ds, Es, even Fs while extending and embellishing the vocal line with extraordinary flourishes made her voice never failed to send chills through her listeners.

Critics carped about her sloppy pronunciation, her imprecise diction, her lack of acting ability, at least earlier on (one critic snapped that her idea of acting was to just stand on stage and let everyone else move around her).  So what?  These are minor considerations in listening to a voice of such purity and flexibility, such nuance, color, and tone, such breathtaking shimmer that we are unlikely to hear its match in our lifetime.

Farewell, Dame Joan!

For a generous sampler, listen to Decca’s two-CD set, “La Stupenda” (what the supercritical Italian critics called her after her debut in February, 1960 at Venice’s La Fenice).  Pay special attention to:

Santa di patria. . .Allor che I forti corrono from Verdi’s Attila

Les oiseaux dans la charmille from Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman

I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls from Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl

Il dolce suono mi colpi di sua voce from Donizetti’s Lucia

Casta diva from Bellini’s Norma

In questa reggia from Puccini’s Turandot TC mark

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