For Joan Sutherland on her Birthday


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.

Lucia di Lammermoor

Lucia di Lammermoor has always been, perhaps even more than Norma, a point of contention between the supporters of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. The performances of both ladies are indeed fantastic and, moreover, totally different. Which of the two should you own? That is not easy. A matter of taste, shall we say?

Joan Sutherland is unprecedentedly virtuoso and her coloraturas so perfect that they hurt. And yet I remain untouched by her. Why? Perhaps because it is too perfect? I do not know. It could just be me.

I Puritani

Elvira, like Lucia, was a showpiece for Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, both of whom recorded it several times. In 1974, Richard Bonynge (Decca 4175882) made a peerless recording of the opera, besides Sutherland, there was the sublime male trio: Luciano Pavarotti, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Piero Cappuccilli. Sutherland sounds like a little heap of misery, and her virtuosity knows no limits. Pavarotti still possessed all his glorious long high notes in those days and he pops them out with no effort at all.

Les Huguenots

 Les Huguenots, once one of the most successful operas in the history of the Paris Opera, had the misfortune, along with its creator, to be labelled ‘Entartet’ (degenerate) by the Nazis. One of the reasons why the work was ignored for decades and was only sporadically performed.

Marguerite de Valois has always been one of Joan Sutherland’s favourite roles, she sang her in 1962 at La Scala, and she chose to sing her in her last opera production on stage, on  October 2, 1990 in Sydney.

The voice of the over 60-year old La Stupenda is not so solid anymore, but her height and her coloratura are still very much present, and apart from Amanda Thane (Valentine) and the really splendid Suzanne Johnston (Page), none of the singers manage to perform at her level. The acting is very good and the inevitable ballet is anything but irritating.

The costumes and the scenery are true-to-life and evocatively beautiful, and the entire stage most resembles a large, seventeenth-century painting. The very traditional production is not only beautiful to look at, but also insanely exciting: this is proof that a good director (Lotfi Mansuri) does not need concepts


  1. I grew up with four divas’s: Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Joan Sutherland and Anna Moffo. I had most of Sutherland’s recordings but the one that still rings in my ears and the one I still play often is the vinyl version of The Art of the Prima Donna especially the first edition with all the info’s about the ladies who fist sung the aria’s. I saw/heard her three times in Amsterdam and those occasions are indelible as for many fans I guess.I would like to share a nice anecdote: on planning a concert performance of Rossini’s La donna del Lago in the Concertgebouw back in the 90’s I travelled to Catania to hear Anna Caterina Antonacci in Semiramide, then at the beginning of her stunning career conducted by Richard Bonynge. To my huge surprise I spotted Dame Sutherland in the plane back to Amsterdam so I went to her to politely ask her for an autograph. She kindly invited me to sit next to her and I not only got the cherished autograph ( the only one I have of any famed singer for that matter!) but also a lecture on ottocento opera and Semiramide in particular. I said to her ‘you of course know this role upside down’ to which she laughed and answered, ‘my dear, not only Semiramide but all the roles in the opera, do you want to hear my bass notes in Oroë?’ We had a huge laugh of course!

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  2. Je noemt bij de eerste opname Jeanette van Dijck, die ik mij nog heel goed herinner, omdat ze zo’n enorme indruk bij mij naliet.
    In 1968 zong zij hier in Hilversum als soliste bij de Hilversumse Cantate Vereniging waarvan ik lid was, o.a. de cantate ”Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen”.
    Onze verwachtingen waren al hoog gespannen, want ze werd door de dirigent voor de generale al aangekondigd als stersopraan van de opera, maar toen ze eenmaal begon met het zingen van het virtuoze stuk vielen we allemaal werkelijk van onze stoel! Zoiets had ík in ieder geval nog nooit gehoord!

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