Skip to main content

 Recording of the Week  Dame Joan Sutherland

Dame Joan Sutherland, the great Australian soprano and one of the most celebrated singers of all time, died peacefully in her home last week at the age of 83. I’ve been re-listening to a number of her recordings over the last few days and reminding quite how unbelievably good she was. Some sopranos have a great middle register but when they get to the high notes the voice thins out a bit. That was never the case with Joan - the top notes were always spot on, and huge. She had amazing breath control, perfect intonation, unbelievable coloratura, splendid trills and pinpoint staccatos. Vocally speaking she really did have the whole package, and it is not surprising that Pavarotti (her regular vocal partner on stage and on record) described hers as "the greatest voice of the century".

Joan Sutherland with Luciano Pavarotti in 1966
Joan Sutherland with Luciano Pavarotti in 1966

She came to London and joined the Royal Opera House in 1952 where she was paid eight pounds a week as a member of the chorus. Two years later she married Australian conductor and pianist Richard Bonynge (although they had already been together for some time). He became her mentor and must take a lot of credit for the development of her voice and the shaping of her career. Bonynge constantly lobbied the opera house to give her a chance in the major bel canto roles, but it wasn't until 1959 that they finally gave her the opportunity she needed in a production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor which was conducted by Serafin and directed by Zeffirelli. Even before the first night word of her remarkable talent had spread quickly and both Maria Callas and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf turned up at the dress rehearsal. She brought the house down at the first night and was transformed overnight into an international star.

Lucia became her signature role and during her career she sang it an astonishing 233 times and also made four recordings (the third of which - featuring Pavarotti and conducted by Bonynge - is generally considered her best). In her early days at the opera house they thought of her as a Wagnerian singer, which I guess considering the range and power of her voice, was perfectly understandable. Bonynge however had other ideas. He was developing a great love of the neglected bel canto repertoire (Bellini, Donizetti, etc) and although, when performed, the main roles were at the time more frequently taken by lighter sopranos, he saw Joan as an integral part of his revolution.

She went on to play a major role in returning a number of hitherto forgotten works to the stage and recording studio, and she didn't limit herself to the bel canto repertoire either, for she also did sterling work for a number of composers and works ranging from Handel to Massenet. For Decca she made 40 recordings of 33 different operas, as well as operatic highlights, anthologies and specially conceived collections of music ranging from baroque rarities to selections from operetta and songs by Noël Coward (who was a personal friend).

The only criticisms she occasionally received were for slightly unclear diction and that her stage performances sometimes lacked the drama of someone like Maria Callas. To be honest those are probably both fair comments, but with a voice as supreme as that, frankly who cares. The public loved her and her recorded legacy will live on for years to come. Hopefully Decca will now see fit to re-issue some of the recordings which are currently unavailable, some of which (such as Massenet’s Esclarmonde) have been out of the catalogue for far too long already. In the meantime you can read a little bit more about her and browse through all her currently available recordings here. I've also picked out below the Lucia (with Pavarotti) mentioned above and a 2-CD compendium of some of her great roles and arias, which gives a pretty good impression of just how amazing she really was.

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor

(1971 Decca recording)

Joan Sutherland (Lucia), Luciano Pavarotti (Edgardo), Sherrill Milnes (Enrico), Nicolai Ghiaurov (Raimondo), Orchestra & Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Richard Bonynge

Available Formats: 3 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC