Dame Joan Sutherland: Soprano known as 'La Stupenda'

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Joan Sutherland's career was so solid and durable – and those are miserable words for a thing of such brilliance – that it might seem perverse to fix on one night of it. But 17 February 1959 was the date, and the occasion, a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the stuff that legends are made of. "Yes, yes," people say as if to wave away the subject, quieten the old opera-bore, soothe a child who tells of improbable adventures which you know the real world lacks resources to supply, But no: that night was one of the great events of a lifetime, and the voice of wonder is not so easily silenced.

Besides, this scepticism about Sutherland was familiar from the start. Outside the theatre I had arranged to meet a friend who had not been to the show and whom I found talking with some critics and other important people who had. A lustreless, unimpressed little group stood there: mouths were set like those of mothers who observe the delinquency of next door's horrible little Dennis, eyelids droops and unseeing gazes fixed upon some indifferent object in the middle distance. "Didn't she look awful with that red hair!" said someone. And all the while within myself there struggled for coherent expression the sensations of one who has seen (and heard) miracles. Then, eventually, the important ones sighed their "Ah wells" and drifted back to Highgate or St John's Wood, and the lid could begin to bob up and down on the kettle, and something of the wonder steaming away inside managed to find release.

It would be much more satisfactory if one could say that what had so impressed had been the newly revealed dramatic impact of the work, that the producer's insight had shown it to be an opera about the subcutaneous disorders of a gain-motivated society. And certainly the opera had proved its power over the emotions and the production had gladdened eye as well as ears. Moreover, it had been well acted. Everybody who was there remembers Lucy's first appearance on the spiral staircase in the Mad Scene, and the way horrified and fascinated onlookers flinched as she turned towards them. Sutherland herself acted with complete conviction and moved with touching beauty and grace. But the great thing, the quality that set this as a night apart, was something else. It was the triumph of voice.

Sutherland's voice was then completely steady. It was also (and so remained till very near the time of her retirement) entirely free from surface-scratch, those layers of extraneous sound which the majority of professional voices acquire, often in a very short time: hers remained pure. It was also quite exceptionally ample in volume. There are problems about comparing the "size" of voices, but my strong recollection is that Sutherland's was a more house-filling tone than Callas's even in her prime; it was certainly much fuller than others we heard at that time in the same or comparable roles. The middle range was not its glory, yet there was warmth and substance in it. She also had a chest voice which, though sparingly used, helped to colour and give dramatic force: Lucy's cry of "il fantasma" remained vivid in the memory because of it.

But the thrills came from on high. It is ridiculous to talk about high notes as though they don't matter or are some kind of stunt irrelevant to the real art of music. When music is written with high notes, the music itself is spoiled if the high notes are shrill or thin or strained in tone; conversely, when the notes are beautiful the music can begin to glow. It was so with Lucia.

There was one breathtakingly beautiful phrase in the cadenza of the Mad Scene at which, if one is to pinpoint a certain moment in the performance, a thrill passed through the whole house. This was the reminiscence of the melody from Act I, "Verranno a te", sung now without words. The phrase is usually broken off before the melody spans its highest, to spoil the suggestion of a fitful, fragmented memory, but to draw us closer to the character through the sheer loveliness of sound. It was pure and natural, and its fullness of tone seemed to come from a full heart: I have never heard anything quite like it. When she took the final high E flat – again with such fullness and assurance – it brought the singer's triumph and the audience's joy in sound to their fitting culmination. But it was in that earlier moment, and in the surrounding phrases, that the house had held its breath and silently acknowledged that here was what in Italy they were soon to know as "La Stupenda".

For her fluency in scale-passages one had to go back to the most accomplished work of earlier singers to find anything comparable: Marcella Sembrich, Nellie Melba, Margarethe Siems. Her staccatos were as finely pointed as Tetrazzini's though the tone had not that brightness and sparkle. Her trill was precise and capable of being sustained long enough to be (as it never was in practice) a delicious menace, a show-stopper à la Selma Kurz (who would walk round the stage holding a single trilled note till on one occasion an exasperated conductor brought down his baton and the orchestra cut her off with a final chord).

There was also something of the limpid, unaggressive style of Galli-Curci in her coloratura: she never used the brilliance of her florid technique to impose awareness of herself as prima donna, or if she caught herself doing something of that kind it was at once despatched with a deprecatory flash of humour. That (the element of "send-up") was to come later, with La Fille du Regiment.

In this first Lucia one of the most refreshing features of the performance was its unself-consciousness. The most brilliant things were done in the most unostentatious way. The Fountain Scene in Act I introduced a Lucia who went about her business with such apparent ease that the audience could have been excused had they failed to recognise the extent of her technical achievement. As I remember it, the applause, even at this early stage, suggested that we had from the start a fairly sure appreciation of the marvel we were witnessing.

The critics whom I met afterwards in their huddle of real or assumed boredom may not, after all, have been typical, for the papers next day were full of praise. Andrew Porter, for instance, found Sutherland's singing "exquisite" and explained exactly why; moreover "there was a meaning in everything she did". The few openly dissenting voices included that of Victor Gollancz, who was heard to remark, "By God, she's as dull as Melba". And, more seriously, there were several good judges who had misgivings which concerned a feature of the singer's art not yet mentioned: that of "legato".

There is a phrase in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers about the futility of trying to construct a gothic arch out of junket. Later on in Sutherland's career and particularly when listening to her records, there were times when the image would come to mind. No doubt it all depends on what you mean by "legato", literally the art of "binding" the notes or, to change the metaphor, making them flow. Every singer "binds" and makes the voice "flow" in some degree, but the degree relates to evenness, which may be a question of voice-production or of style or both.

Also related is the concept of "line". Sutherland, with her conductor husband Richard Bonynge, came to specialise in operas from the first half of the 19th century, which of all periods was the one that most assiduously cultivated the voice as an instrument for melody. The melodic line may have its points of special emphasis and it may be shaped with a rise and fall of volume, but essentially the notes must be "bound" and the line must preserve a certain integrity: it is a unit in the sequence of phrases which constitute the melody. Sutherland, it was felt, either lacked something in the technique of binding evenly or, perhaps encouraged by Bonynge and other influences (such as the example of Callas) which urged her to be "expressive", developed a style that fussed and fidgeted too much.

This, as a source of dissatisfaction, was exacerbated by three other features of her singing. One was the particular character of her tone, which had about it a quality that was more of a liability on records than in the flesh. Hers was a round voice rather than sharp-edged, warm rather than shiny. So if one compared Sutherland in (say) "Ah, non credea mirarti" from La sonnambula with the recording by Toti Dal Monte, Sutherland's lack of a firm line was felt as much in the contrast of tones as in the treatment of the melody (whether technical or stylistic).

Then there was the question, much more clearly stylistic, of the Sutherland "droop". Portamento, the carrying-over of one note into the next by a gentle curve of sound rather than a clean-cut interval, is a feature of the legato style, and that is not what is in question here. It is more a device which I think Sutherland learnt to use when seeking pathos; it then became a mannerism and grew tiresome. In his book on Sutherland in the short-lived Record Masters series (1972), Edward Greenfield sees the early 1960s as the worst time for this, and it is true that later years brought some tightening-up in this respect. Yet it is part of the "sound-picture" one retains: try to listen to Sutherland inwardly, and this is part of what you hear.

The third feature that contributed to this perceived want of definition in Sutherland's singing was the somewhat amorphous nature of her diction. Consonants lacked sharpness, but that would have mattered less had the full range of vowel sounds been available. Just as Walter Pater thought that "all arts aspire towards the condition of music", so it seems all vowels aspired towards the condition of "ah". Degrees of difference were preserved, but you certainly could not say of Sutherland that she (as David Hamilton wrote of Martinelli) "quickened the language". With the verbal life of it so drained, her music needed still more urgently sharpness of tone and cleanness of interval in order to preserve its vitality.

Misgivings about such matters increased during the early years of her stardom. But the post-Lucia years were not the whole of Sutherland's career, and some of her best work was done before that great night in 1959. Sutherland had already demonstrated her star-quality the previous year, singing "Let the bright Seraphim" at the end of Handel's Samson. Samson may have brought down the temple but it was Sutherland who brought down the house. In those years I remember two moments of bewilderment. One was in Tippett's Midsummer Marriage, in which bewilderments were manifold, but my own special problem was this: everyone had told me, and I had believed, that no florid singing was to be heard in the present that could be remotely compared with that of the past, yet here was this not so very celebrated girl singing with such assured virtuosity that it was hard to imagine Tetrazzini herself doing better.

The other occasion was in 1952, in Norma. Norma held the stage, but in her shadow came the nearly anonymous confidante, Clotilde, who was occasionally allowed a phrase or two. I, whom gramophone records had taught to regard the "great" singer as virtuiially a separate species from the non-entities who played roles such as the confidante, was disconcerted to find the two voices, side by side, not such worlds apart after all. A reviewer in Opera magazine referred to the "weak, fluttering sounds" emitted by Clotilde, but this was not so in the performance I attended. Her voice was clear and firm. The name Joan Sutherland meant nothing; the name Maria Callas (who sang Norma) already meant a great deal. The apparent levelling threat to my view of the singers' hierarchy turned out to be no such thing, for the confidante was soon to join the ranks of the great ones; but it is a testimony to the quality of Sutherland's voice even then, and in such a tiny role, that it should have called a whole system of judgement into question.

What happened immediately following the great triumph at the Royal Opera House was also impressive. The diva went down the road to sing in the Handel Opera Society's Rodelinda at Sadlers Wells. It was a fine cast, with the young Janet Baker as Eduige and, as a feast of singing, was in no way inferior to the Lucia. The following year a glittering production by Zeffirelli of Alcina was created for her at La Fenice in Venice, with repetitions in Dallas and in 1962 at Covent Garden: famous occasions all of these, adding lustre to the annals of the houses.

But then again she did the same honourable thing, and, under Charles Farncombe, sang in Giulio Cesare back in Sadlers Wells. As a Handel singer she met with some criticism, especially from Handelians who would have preferred a more moderate style of embellishment and a cleaner treatment of the melodic line. There were nevertheless things that she could do in Handel which no one else could rival, and for many her participation in them was the means of their introduction to a field of opera still largely unknown to the general public.

Composers, titles, theatres, dates: through all of these a singer has a private life to maintain. After the Lucia, as Sutherland's biographer, Norma Major, remarks, nothing was ever to be the same. She became a world-citizen. With a home in Switzerland, a loyalty to London, an annual season in New York, and from 1965 onwards a renewed and ever-stronger association with her native Australia, these were still other great calls upon her: Milan, Paris, Vienna, San Francisco, Chicago, Vancouver, Madrid, Amsterdam, Stockholm, these and many more were the scenes of tumultuous receptions which were only proportionate to the special place she had acquired in the musical world.

She was also a mother as well as a wife. She appeared to the public to be in radiant health, but had serious and often gruelling afflictions to contend with. Equally, everyone who knew her has their story of her cheerfulness, generosity and sheer good nature.

Sutherland was born in Sydney in 1926 to Scots parents, She studied first with her mother, a mezzo-soprano, and then with John and Aida Dickens in Sydney, where she made her concert debut as Dido in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in 1947. Four years later she made her stage debut in Eugene Goossens' Judith, then moved to London to study at the Opera School of the Royal College of Music with Clive Carey. She joined the Royal Opera House as a utility soprano, and made her debut there in 1952, as the First Lady in The Magic Flute. She remained resident soprano there for seven years, culminating in her triumphant Lucia in 1959.

Her retirement on New Year's Eve at Covent Garden in 1990 was unforgettable as an event in which all this great warmth of feeling was concentrated. Her singing of "Home, Sweet Home" showed that the time had come, though the scales and roulades of the Semiramide duet with Marylin Horne had much of the old brilliance. I prefer to think of her final Lucia at Covent Garden, in 1985, as the last time I heard her, and even then, impressive and moving as the occasion was, it was not the Sutherland we had known, nor was it anything approaching.

Further back than that, records had exposed (and exaggerated) a beat on sustained notes. A whole generation must have come into being that thought it had heard the great Sutherland when truths to tell it had not. Increasingly now, we shall have to go back to theearlier records, perhaps up to 1970;and even then they need supplementing by reference to the world press and to the accounts of those who heard her in her prime.

There was an amplitude, a potent glow of sound, which records hardly capture, just as there was something in her own presence and her relationship with an audience which photographs capture not at all. She simply, at her best, gave to opera-goers of this century, singing of a kind which they thought belonged to another age. She may not have "quickened the language"but she quickened a love of the singing voice and of the operas that best preserve it.

Joan Sutherland, soprano: born Sydney, Australia 7 November 1926; CBE 1961, DBE 1979, OM 1991; married 1954 Richard Bonynge (one son); died near Geneva, Switzerland 11 October 2010.