The fact that the opera has become so incredibly popular and has been performed so very frequently in recent decades is largely thanks to Joan Sutherland. Back in 1957, she brought Alcina to life in London and directed by Zefirelli. Unfortunately, we do not have a video recording of it, but La Stupenda sang and recorded the role several times afterwards and there are many both official and pirate recordings of it in circulation.
Personally, I have a soft spot for the 1959 live recording (DG, made to mark the 200th anniversary of Handel’s death), not least because of Fritz Wunderlich, who sings the role of Ruggiero. Last but not least, Dutch soprano Jeannette van Dijck sings the role of Morgana. And believe it or not, the Cappella Coloniensis, led by Ferdinand Leitner, is already playing on authentic instruments. In 1959!
The score has been considerably shortened. Thus, pretty much the entire role of Oberto has been dropped. And yet… opera is mostly about voices, isn’t it? And Sutherland’s ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ and Wunderlich’s ‘Mi lusinga il dolce affetto’ are simply second to none. (DG 4778017)
Joan Sutherland recorded Norma twice (officially). Her first recording from 1965 (Decca 4704132) caused a real sensation. It was the very first recording of Bellini’s complete music, without any cut. Moreover, it was the first recording in the original key (Bellini composed his opera in G, but before the premiere he changed it to F).
In those days, Sutherland was considered the belcanto specialist par excellence. Her voice knew no limits and seemed to be made of elastic. High, higher, highest, and with coloraturas that sound almost inhumanly perfect.
Adalgisa was sung by Marilyn Horne, Sutherland’s alter ego in the mezzo voice. The result is dazzling, but it lacks the necessary drama, all the more so because John Alexander (Pollione) has a beautiful but insipid voice.
The orchestral playing is excellent, however, and if you like pure singing, high notes and coloratura, this recording is the best choice.
Twenty years later, Sutherland recorded the role again, this time with Montserrat Caballé (Adalgisa) and Luciano Pavarotti (Pollione). Let’s call it a mistake, although Caballé’s Adalgisa is at least interesting. It’s a pity it wasn’t thought of sooner.