V1997. JOAN SUTHERLAND, w.Molinari-Pradelli Cond. Royal Opera House Chorus & Orch.: The Art of the Prima Donna, incl. Arne, Handel, Mozart, Bellini, Rossini, Gounod, Delibes & Meyerbeer. (UK) Alto ALC 1125, recorded 1960, Decca. - 5055354411250
"In her own time, there was a tendency to take Sutherland for granted, so consistent were her high standards of technique, musicianship and, yes, acting. Her total command of the stage was always formidable. No recording can really give an impression of how big the voice was….it had an astonishing and physically thrilling impact."
- Patrick O’Connor, GRAMOPHONE, Jan., 2007
“It was Italy’s notoriously picky critics who dubbed the Australian-born Ms. Sutherland the ‘La Stupenda’ after her Italian début in Venice in 1960. And for 40 years the name endured with opera lovers around the world. Her 1961 début at the Metropolitan Opera in Donizetti’s LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, generated so much excitement that standees began lining up at 7:30 that morning. Her singing of the Mad Scene drew a thunderous 12-minute ovation.
Ms. Sutherland’s singing was founded on astonishing technique. Her voice was evenly produced throughout an enormous range, from a low G to effortless flights above high C. She could spin lyrical phrases with elegant legato, subtle colorings and expressive nuances. Her sound was warm, vibrant and resonant, without any forcing. Indeed, her voice was so naturally large that at the start of her career Ms. Sutherland seemed destined to become a Wagnerian dramatic soprano.
Following her first professional performances, in 1948, during a decade of steady growth and intensive training, Ms. Sutherland developed incomparable facility for fast runs, elaborate roulades and impeccable trills. She did not compromise the passagework, as many do, by glossing over scurrying runs, but sang almost every note fully. Her abilities led Richard Bonynge, the Sydney-born conductor and vocal coach whom she married in 1954, to persuade her early on to explore the early-19th-century Italian opera of the bel canto school. She became a major force in its revitalization.
In a glowing and perceptive review of her performance as Desdemona in Verdi’s OTELLO at Covent Garden in late 1957, the critic Andrew Porter, writing in The Financial Times, commended her for not ‘sacrificing purity to power’. This is ‘not her way’, Mr. Porter wrote, ‘and five years on we shall bless her for her not endeavoring now to be ‘exciting’ but, instead, lyrical and beautiful’. She became an international sensation after her career-defining performance in the title rôle of LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at Covent Garden — its first presentation there since 1925 — which opened on 17 Feb., 1959. The production was directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by the Italian maestro Tullio Serafin, a longtime Callas colleague, who elicited from the 32-year-old soprano a vocally resplendent and dramatically affecting portrayal of the trusting, unstable young bride of Lammermoor.
Mr. Porter, reviewing the performance in The Financial Times, wrote that the brilliance of Ms. Sutherland’s singing was to be expected by this point. The surprise, he explained, was the new dramatic presence she brought to bear. This triumph was followed in 1960 by landmark portrayals in neglected bel canto operas by Bellini: Elvira in I PURITANI at the Glyndebourne Festival (the first presentation in England since 1887) and LA SONNAMBULA at Covent Garden (the company’s first production in half a century).
Ms. Sutherland’s American début came in November 1960 in the title rôle of Handel’s ALCINA at the Dallas Opera, the first American production of this now-popular work.
At Ms. Sutherland’s first appearance in New York, her enormously anticipated Metropolitan Opera début in LUCIA, on 26 Nov., before she had sung a note, there was an enthusiastic ovation. Following the first half of Lucia’s Mad Scene in the final act, which culminated in a glorious high E-flat, the ovation lasted almost 5 minutes. When she finished the scene and her crazed, dying Lucia collapsed to the stage floor, the ovation lasted 12 minutes. Reviewing the performance in The New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg wrote that other sopranos might have more power or a sweeter tone, but ‘there is none around who has the combination of technique, vocal security, clarity and finesse that Miss Sutherland can summon'.
At 5-foot-9, she was a large woman, with long arms and large hands, and a long, wide face. As her renown increased, she insisted that designers create costumes for her that compensated for her figure, which, as she admitted self-deprecatingly in countless interviews, was somewhat flat in the bust but wide in the rib cage. Certain dresses could make her look like ‘a large column walking about the stage’, she wrote in THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF JOAN SUTHERLAND: A PRIMA DONNA’S PROGRESS (1997).
Joan Alston Sutherland was born on 7 Nov., 1926, in Sydney, where the family lived in a modest house overlooking the harbor. The family garden and the rich array of wildflowers on the hillside near the beach inspired her lifelong love of gardening.
Her mother, Muriel Sutherland, was a fine mezzo-soprano who had studied with Mathilde Marchesi, the teacher of the Australian soprano Nellie Melba. Though too shy for the stage, Ms. Sutherland’s mother did vocal exercises every day and was her daughter’s principal teacher throughout her adolescence. Ms. Sutherland’s father, William, a Scottish-born tailor, had been married before. His first wife died during the influenza epidemic after World War I, leaving him with three daughters and a son. Ms. Sutherland was the only child of his second marriage. Although Ms. Sutherland’s mother soon recognized her daughter’s gifts, she pegged her as a mezzo-soprano. At 16, facing the reality of having to support herself, Ms. Sutherland completed a secretarial course and took office jobs, while keeping up her vocal studies. She began lessons in Sydney with Aida Dickens, who convinced her that she was a soprano, very likely a dramatic soprano. In 1951, with prize money from winning a prestigious vocal competition, she and her mother moved to London, where Ms. Sutherland enrolled at the opera school of the Royal College of Music. The next year, after three previous unsuccessful auditions, she was accepted into the Royal Opera at Covent Garden and made her début as the First Lady in Mozart’s ZAUBERFLÖTE.
In the company’s landmark 1952 production of Bellini’s NORMA, starring Maria Callas, Ms. Sutherland sang the small role of Clotilde, Norma’s confidante. ‘Now look after your voice’, Callas advised her at the time, adding, ‘We’re going to hear great things of you’. ‘I lusted to sing Norma after being in those performances with Callas’, Ms. Sutherland said in a 1998 New York Times interview. ‘But I knew that I could not sing it the way she did. It was 10 years before I sang the rôle. During that time I studied it, sang bits of it, and worked with Richard [Bonynge]. But I had to evolve my own way to sing it, and I would have wrecked my voice to ribbons had I tried to sing it like her’. In 1955 she created the lead rôle of Jenifer in Michael Tippett’s MIDSUMMER MARRIAGE.
In the early 1960s, using a home in southern Switzerland as a base, Ms. Sutherland made the rounds, singing in international opera houses and forming a close association with the Met, where she ultimately sang 223 performances. These included an acclaimed new production of NORMA in 1970 with Ms. Horne in her Met début, singing Adalgisa; Mr. Bonynge conducted. There was also a hugely popular 1972 production of Donizetti’s LA FILLE DU RÉGIMENT, with Pavarotti singing the role of Tonio.”
- Anthony Tommasini, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 11 Oct., 2010