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Sunday, October 17, 2010


Dame Joan Sutherland died on October 10, just a week ago, bringing to a close one of the most spectacular operatic careers of the 20th century. There is no doubt that she was one of the greatest sopranos of the twentieth century, and probably of all time, with a voice and a technique that set her apart from the beginning, and made everyone take notice that true greatness had dawned in the world of grand opera. Her contribution to the renaissance of bel canto, from the late 1950's to the 1980's, simply cannot be over-estimated.

Dame Joan was born in Sydney, in 1926. She began studying voice at 18, and made her concert debut in Sydney in 1947. The talent was obvious from the beginning, and after winning an important competition she went to London to study at the Royal College of Music, and was engaged shortly thereafter by Covent Garden to sing small parts.

She made her debut in a leading role in 1952, when she sang Amelia in The Masked Ball. The power of her voice must have been apparent to all, even at that stage in her career, for her to have landed a debut role like Amelia! Curiously, perhaps because of the size of her voice, she was at first interested in Wagner, and greatly admired Kirsten Flagstad. Big roles followed Masked Ball, along with much lighter roles such as Gilda and Pamina. Dame Joan was fortunate to have come along at a time when specialization was not what it is today, and young singers—assuming the ability was there--had an opportunity to vary their repertoire considerably.

Sutherland married Australian conductor and pianist Richard Bonyage in 1954, and it was largely he who convinced her to concentrate on the bel canto roles that would bring her great fame. She had, from the outset, a spectacular technique that made it possible for her to sing very high notes. Eb above high C was never a problem for her, and she could on occasion sing even higher. Coupled with this extreme range was a great flexibility and a flawless trill. These characteristically coloratura attributes, joined to a naturally powerful voice, made her one of the most exceptionally endowed sopranos of all time. In 1959, she sang Lucia at the Royal Opera House in a production conducted by Tullio Serafin and staged by Franco Zeffirelli. The rest, as they say, is history. 1960 and 1961 were important years for Sutherland, as she made debuts in Paris, New York and Milan at that time. From then on, her fame was universal and her extraordinary career established. Lucia had already become something of a signature role for her, and it attracted attention everywhere.

There is no reason to belabor a biography so readily consulted and so well known. Let us, rather, look at the art of this extraordinary woman. The following video is from her first telecast, either 1959 or 60, some 50 years ago. It appears to be a kinescope recording, and the video quality is poor. There is also an annoying time counter plastered across her face part of the time, and the video slips momentarily at the end, causing an audio growl, but, mercifully, the audio quality in general is good, and it is a rare opportunity to see the great lady at the time she burst forth onto the operatic scene world-wide:

Isn't that astonishing! Those rapid cadenzas have every single note articulated accurately and clearly! No glide here! The trill is perfect and the Eb at the end has the same quality as the rest of the voice. There is generally a purity and consistency to the voice, which is like a column of sound, solid from top to bottom, a characteristic most commonly found in Germanic singers, Wagnerians in particular. The more characteristic ebb and flow of the Latin singing style is replaced here by something else, which still works perfectly well in the bel canto repertoire, perhaps contrary to expectation. It is, I would venture, an instance of the total triumph of traditional technique that makes this possible. Vocally speaking, it simply does not get any better than this.

While Lucia, because of the opportunity it affords to display this superb technique, was perhaps Dame Joan's signature role, it certainly was not her only big part. She in fact sang a fairly wide range of roles, albeit largely within the bel canto repertoire. I personally think it was a brilliant move on Bonyage's part to urge her into what was at that time a neglected area, simply because it gave her the chance to foreground her astonishing voice and technique, and also because it helped re-establish the bel canto repertoire, a great repository of beautiful music.

Here is a live recording of Sempre Libera from 1965. It is amazing. There is some background noise and what sounds like a prompter, but it is very light and easy to ignore. She comes through loud and clear, to say the least!

Again, we notice the extreme consistency. Another Eb, seemingly effortlessly produced, carrying a prodigious amount of weight for a note so high! This was one of the many astonishing things about Sutherland's voice—the absolute consistency of the upper register, which actually seems, tonally, of a piece with every other register. I know of no other soprano where this is so obviously the case. Simply amazing!

I suppose that now is as good a time as any to mention the one "flaw" in Sutherland's production that was most commonly mentioned, and that is what some critics called a "mushy" pronunciation that sometimes made it unclear exactly what language she was singing in. Call it "operatic scat," but whatever the reason, it was pretty obvious. I can only say that for me it made no difference. The works in which she shone were well over 100 years old, and the libretti are hardly unknown! Does it really matter? Let us be honest—by the time of the mid-twentieth century the plots and stories are so well known that most listen now only to the music and essential vocalism. This was not the case back in the teens and twenties, when singers such as Battistini or Chaliapin could augment their vocal prowess with their acting ability—in which attention to words was crucial. We are in a different world now.

Finally, here is another role in which the great soprano was brilliant—Elvira in I Puritani. Here is the charming "Son Vergin Vezzosa." (Do notice, please, the trill at 23-25, near the beginning of the piece.)

Absolutely brilliant, is it not? Did you notice the trill very near the beginning of the aria? Possibly the greatest trill ever recorded. I can only think of one other soprano who can compete with this rendition, and that would be the divine Galli-Curci, who brought perhaps more girlish charm and ease of execution to the aria, but much less voice (which was, to be fair, the lot of every coloratura soprano who was not Joan Sutherland!)

There is no need to go on. I know I am running to superlatives, but how is it possible to discuss this goddess among sopranos and not do so? Rest in well deserved peace, Dame Joan. We shall not soon see your equal!


Anonymous said...

Hi Edmund,
Thank you so much for this timely and eloquent tribute to a truly great singer in the history of opera. I first learnt about her name several years ago as a young teenager. Those dazzling fireworks in the final passages of the cabaletta from Linda di Chamounix's solo scene, all thrown up with such ease, insouciance and abandon, still remain in my memory up to this day. Her graceful sailing of Elvira's Polonaise from I Puritani is another memory I shall treasure. In many of the roles she sang on stage, including the Puritani Elvira as well as her utterly unforgettable portrayl of Marie in Donizetti's La fille du régiment, it's her sparkling, brilliant charisma, one uniquely her own, that secures an eternal place for her in the pantheon of greats. It's particularly gratifying to learn that Glyndebourne Opera will soon be releasing the live recording of her debut in the role of the Puritani Elvira in May 1960:

This would surely be the most fitting tribute to her memory on recordings.


JD Hobbes said...

Good article! Thank you for embedding the videos. That made it really easy and it works well.

Good job...

Nate said...

Thank you, Edmund, for this touching and accurate summation of Dame Joan Sutherland's vocal achievements as well as her contributions toward the world of opera. May I add that I had the great good fortune of hearing her in live performance several times, in opera and recital. She was superb in both venues. One recital I shall never forget was her farewell performance to the Met at the age of 62, accompanied at the piano by her husband, Richard Bonygne. She was in excellent voice that evening, and she almost seemed to succeed in turning back the hands of time some thirty years. Even her breath control--which, of late, was not quite what it had been in former years--on that occasion was astonishing. My favorite operatic role of hers was Amina in La Sonnambula. Particularly her singing of the whole final scene, including Amina's brilliant cabaletta, "Ah! non giunge," was most beautiful and thrilling. I wholeheartedly agree with you that Joan Sutherland was unique with respect to voice and technique, and we will not soon, if ever, see her likes again.

Nate said...

Thank you, Edmund, for your touching and accurate summation of Dame Joan Sutherland's vocal achievements as well as her major contributions toward the world of opera. I had the great good fortune of hearing her in live performance several times, in both opera and recital. She was superb in both venues. One particular recital I shall never forget was her farewell performance to the Met at the age of 62, which she gave with her husband, Richard Bonygne, accompanying her at the piano. She was in excellent form that evening, her voice radiant and her technique phenomenal; and very nearly succeeded in turning back the hands of time some thirty years. Even her breath control--which, of late, was not quite as secure as it had been in the past--was astonishing on that occasion. I think my favorite of her operatic roles was Amina in La Sonnambula. I especially loved her brilliant handling of the whole final scene of the opera, including Amina's cabaletta (Ah! non giunge), which was most thrilling and beautiful. I wholeheartedly agree with you that Joan Sutherland's vocal gifts are unique and unparalleled, and we will not soon, if ever, see her likes again.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Tim, for an excellent and very well informed comment. She was great indeed, and that is not an easy over-use of the term. One of the very few. And thanks for the link!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Nate, I really appreciate your comments, as always, and I agree about Amina. If I had had more space, the cabaletta would have been a great addition!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Mr. Hobbes, my most faithful correspondent! I appreciate your comment on the embedding, and I'm especially glad it works on email, as you are on that list. Should make it all easier. I'm sure it's old technology to everybody else, but I come by these things a bit slowly:-)

corax said...

a fitting tribute to this operatic force of nature. thanks, as always, for your excellent work on this blog. what would we do without you?

Edmund St. Austell said...

You would, I suspect, survive:-) Thank you for your comment, my friend, always appreciated

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article. I totally agree with Tim – it’s an excellent tribute to the brilliant singer. The choice of videos is perfect; though the first one has some technical shortcomings, the singing is divine, which is the most important. In all three videos Dame Joan is at her top form, and it’s clear that she was one of the greatest singers ever. I heard many recordings from the 1970’s and was very impressed by her technical skills and spirituality of her performance. But these early recordings represent the extraordinary voice. “Heavenly’, ‘divine’ are correct words to express the impression. And of course her thrills are exceptional, she did it very musically, not just as a vocal ‘trick’. Her voice sounded like a perfect instrument .
The diction may be ‘mushy’( though it’s hard for me to hear it, as I don’t know Italian), but it doesn’t have any negative effect on her performance, because she sings so intelligently and emotionally.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Добро пожаловать, дорогой друг, и большое спасибо за ваши комментарии! Yes, you are exactly right when you point out that her trills are musical, and not a vocal trick. That is a perceptive comment, and the same could be said of her other technical refinements: they are used musically, and not as a circus act. The same could be said of her that we have often said of Nezhdanova--the artistry came first, and all the exceptional physical endowments were pressed into the service of that artistry. That is a sure sign of greatness. Thanks as always for an excellent comment!

JING said...

A wonderful and fitting tribute. And excellent comments all around from your knowledgeable contributers. Oh, to have seen her in person. Lucky Nate. I have heard that Dame Sutherland was the favorite singing partner of Pavarotti's.
(Their Traviata together is still my favorite)Needless to say that, along with her perfection as an artist, she appears to have been a totally dependable professional, without any of the serious problems of temperament that have been touched on here from time to time. And what an amazing marriage she and Bonyage must have had, when one reflects on how multi-dimensional it had to have been. Thanks again for a timely, wise, and appreciative post, simply letting her achievement stand by itself. (And I, too, really like the embedded videos)

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Sir Edmund. I thought about Nezhdanova too.
'I personally think it was a brilliant move on Bonyage's part to urge her into what was at that time a neglected area, simply because it gave her the chance to foreground her astonishing voice and technique, and also because it helped re-establish the bel canto repertoire, a great repository of beautiful music.'
It's hard to imagine now that bel canto was forgotten for a long time. I read that even the most famous Rossini's operas were not performed. Is that true?


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend. Always nice to hear from you, and yes, indeed, Pavarotti on more than one occasion spoke of his admiration for Sutherland. Their Puritani simply took the opera world by storm when it was first presented at the Met. Not many generations get to hear all the music in the original key. Two singers with very high voices can really set that opera on fire!

Thanks for your comment!

quemadmodum said...

Re Dame Joan's voice: I had the honor of singing on stage with her when she was at a late stage in her career--it was a production of "Merry Widow" in 1989 (she would have been 63) and it was her stage farewell in Dallas, Texas. She had a few climactic high notes "transferred" to the soubrette of the company but otherwise she sang what was in the score. What I heard, standing next to her, was a good-sized voice which still kept much of its extraordinary fluidity of motion, but what truly impressed me was what I can only describe as a sort of huge, sparkling corona of overtones around the sound. In the house (I heard her at the Met a few times) you didn't hear this as such, but it obviously contributed to the remarkable "sailing power" of her singing. That sound could vault effortlessly over an ensemble or orchestra like a musical Pegasus, and take wing in the theatre.
We won't hear anything to approach her anytime soon again. At her best, she conveyed a kind of sheer joy in singing that was irresistible. I recommend a very early clip of a Thomas Arne aria, "The traveller benighted"--the voice is younger and brighter, but when she starts a line of coloratura, there is that amazing sense of taking flight.

Kimoochii21 said...

An excellent article about one of the greatest singers. I was glad to see some mention of the happy marriage with Richard Bonynge. I believe, from reading her own writings, that she truly loved him, and this contributed to her acceptance of his vocal coaching. I also believe that his persistent shaping of her voice, telling her to make the sound rounder, the tone more lustrous, etc., had a beneficial effect on her sound but also may have contributed to what many people perceived as her faults. People may criticize her diction, but should she have sacrificed that glorious sound to sharpen her enunciation? I don't think so. I also feel like this focusing on the tone had as an almost secondary reward the improvement of her legato line -the portamento. It was really miraculous how Dame Joan could maintain this perfect legato line while working through impossibly rapid passage work.
I've read comments by studio technicians who mention "the famous Sutherland scoop", which is usually not considered as a positive quality, but I also see this as a byproduct of focusing on the round tone and the legato line.
In any event, I wept on reading of Dame Joan's death. Maybe her time was up, and I wish she could have been immortal, but she was the best at what she did.
I also want to mention that her farewell performances in a complete opera at the Met., as Leonora in "Il Trovatore", were the all time greatest performances of my favorite opera. Her recording of "Turandot" is also my favorite, and I sort of feel like Dame Joan had to use the leverage and fame she built up in more strictly florid roles, in order to get the opportunity to show the world what she could do with these big roles which are usually not associated with a coloratura specialist.
Sorry. I prattle on too long, but Thank You for the nice words about one of my favorites. Rest in Peace, Joan. If anyone deserves solo parts up in the Heavenly Choir, it is surely you.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much indeed for a moving and most interesting comment!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this wonderful
tribute. I appreciate your giving her
husband, Richard Bonynge, his due. So
often he is portrayed as a "Svengali"
with Joan as his "Trilby"...never by
Joan, I might add. I firmly believe
that, by steering her away from the
heavier roles into bel canto, he added
years to the longevity of her beautiful
voice. BTW...I am Jeanne90275 from YT.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment. I agree with you. People made silly comments about their relationship without ever stopping to consider its extreme longevity. And, as I pointed out in the article, I think he directed her wisely. Those tremendous musical and vocal gifts, channeled into what is almost certainly the greatest school of vocal art of all time, bel canto, gave us a career so extraordinary as to be virtually unique. Thanks again.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much indeed for this moving testimonial!

Avvocato Orsini said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kimoochii21 said...

Thank You. If you blog is as intelligent, well written and informative as your entries here have been, I will definitely be interested in reading it.
As for Leyla Gencer's amazing pianissimos, I think Montserrat Caballe pretty well owned the store when it came to floating those ethereal pianissimos. Caballe's was another of those voices that needed to be heard live. Her recordings are beautiful, but only a live experience could make me believe the tremendous technique/projection which made those soft tones seem to emanate from the ceiling (rather like vetriloquism). Could Gencer do that? Caballe was "full figured", to put it mildly, but she must have had abdominal muscles like steel bands.
Thank you, again. I'll look for your blog.

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

Sutherland was a great, great soprano, and what she for opera was to walk the hallway of which Maria Callas had opened the door, along with her husband.

The voice and technique were flawless and true singing of the early nineteenth century, because her first teacher, her mother, the mezzo-soprano, was trained by a pupil of Melba. This extremely important.

I was very pleased that Sutherland sang in «Norma» with a Pollione that could execute the score, not somebody who could blow out the windows of the theatre. Remember, when Bellini was writing, tenors like Giacomini and del Monaco did not exist!

However, for me, Sutherland's Norma was disappointing. For all her excellent vocalism, it was a little sterile: I always prefer La Divina Turca, Leyla Gencer — because of her "fuoco sacro" her sacred fire. Now me saying this is like Lauri-Volpi calling Di Stefano «THE tenor», clearly we are talking about things other than technique.

Callas' Norma, although I unfortunately did not hear it live, seems better for the passion she gives, especially in the Filippeschi recording, which is probably the best.

Anita Cerquetti was the best Norma I ever heard live: she could easily match Sutherland in the upper register, and she had more passion and much more squillo, even if not the same impeccable and authentic technique.

Sutherland has no equals in the French repertoire, certainly, and I always think she was more suited to French than Italian opera. Her role of the Queen in «Ugonotti» was amazing. At the end of the opera, she took curtain calls, and we applauded very loudly — even though the role is only in Act I. That is the type of singer she was. I never heard her sing in the French version, but the recordings are brilliant.

Another thing that needs mention is her personality: she was the kindest and most giving lady, she was a true gentlewoman. Very friendly, always with a smile, always kind to colleagues. She did not alienate people. I don't think I have met such a humble and kind soprano since!

Her recording legacy too, is magnificent, and her collaboration with Luciano Pavarotti to record many operas in full without cuts is a gift most generous and rich to us.

Let me conclude by saying that unlike other singers, Joan Sutherland deserved every flower and every clap, every «brava». Nature gave her a great gift, and she nurtured it to become what Caballé called: «paradiso!»

Verdiwagnerite said...

Thanks again Edmund. As an Australian, I'm very proud of her career but also her no nonsense approach and as I mentioned when commenting on Maria Callas, stability and support in a singers private life has to help. By all accounts, the international opera scene can be pretty cut throat environment, so to have someone such as Richard Bonynge in ones corner must have been a great help.
His contribution to Sutherland's success can not be underestimated.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for an excellent comment! And you are right; her husband was an enormous help to her, and largely responsible for urging her in the bel canto direction.

Verdiwagnerite said...

Vale La Stupenda. Dame Joan would have turned 85 today!

Carey Fitzsimonds said...

One of my favourite records made by Dame Joan is Vissi d'arte. Ironic, considering she never sang the full role on stage, but it must surely be among her best recordings. As always, her tone is sovereign, to which she adds uncharacteristic drama and emotion, and miracle of miracles, her diction is even reasonably clear. Dame Joan, one of the finest operatic performers - a fine voice, a fine technique and a fine personality. Thanks for a fitting tribute

Carey Fitzsimonds