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Music Pages

Dame Joan Sutherland remembered

14 October 2010, London, UK

Dame Joan Sutherland in 1975
Dame Joan Sutherland in 1975(Photo: Allan Warren)

Special report by Paul Westcott

To explain why Joan Sutherland has been described as “The Voice of the Century” is not as easy as it sounds.  Undoubtedly she had a fabulous technique and an intrinsically beautiful voice, but there was so much more to her artistry than that. Her music-making was imbued with that ‘star’ quality which very few possess.  Possibly because, in her person and in her application to making the most of her gifts, she was utterly un-Diva like. 

In her most famous role, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Sutherland made the somewhat far-fetched character of Lucia totally believable. The celebrated ‘Mad Scene’ of that opera was chilling, thrilling, and ultimately intensely moving.

One was instinctively on ‘her’ side in all of Sutherland’s portrayals, from her fizzing Marie in La Fille du regiment (revealing her tremendous comic flair) to the less sympathetic characters of Turandot and Lucrezia Borgia, the latter of which features a final dazzling aria where again she managed both to move and thrill in equal measure.
Her 1970s recording of Maria Stuarda gives lie to the myth that Sutherland’s diction was poor. Here, she positively spits out her words, and when she flings the insult “vil bastarda”, the intensity of the drama is electrifying.

With her husband, Richard Bonynge, Sutherland was very generous to her colleagues, instinctively recognising other great talents: early in her career she performed with Marilyn Horne, the start of a long collaboration and friendship, whilst a certain young singer, Luciano Pavarotti, was taken under the wing of Joan and Richard, performing with them on tours and in opera houses. But there were many other wonderful artists too, whose delight in collaborating with Joan produced a string of classic Decca recordings of Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini and many works from the French repertoire, notably Massenet and a practically definitive version of Les Contes d'Hoffmann

Sutherland’s recital discs – ‘The Art of the Prima Donna’, ‘The Age of Bel Canto’ and ‘Romantic French Arias’ – are all superb examples of her artistry but one only has to listen to the finale of her Decca recordings of I Puritani to understand why she really was “The Voice of the Century”. 

Sutherland was a great artist and a great person and is irreplaceable.

Paul Westcott is the official biographer of Australian conductor and pianist, Richard Bonynge, who married Dame Joan Sutherland in 1954 and played a crucial role in supporting her rise to superstardom.


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