She had the most beautiful voice. Arturo Toscanini said of Renata Tebaldi that hers was the voice of an angel. Of Joan Sutherland, who died in Switzerland yesterday at the age of 83, the Maestro would have no doubt placed her among the Seraphim -- the angels of the highest order whose name means fire. Hers was the second soprano voice I ever heard on records (the first was Tebaldi), and her voice, full of fiery ardor beneath that gorgeous tone, ignited in me a love of beautiful singing that I carry to this day.
I saw her a couple of times live at the Metropolitan Opera in the late 70's and 80's. Once as Gilda in Rigoletto and another time in her signature role, the title character in Lucia di Lammermoor. I missed her singing days in the 1960's when her voice was the purest. However there are the recordings. Sutherland arrived on the opera scene, and with her classical recordings reached a zenith of perfection. Her label was London Records, which always seem to have an edge on RCA and Angel when it came to impressive sound. For me Joan Sutherland was a voice I came to know and appreciate as it was captured in the recording studio.
Her recording of Rigoletto was one of the first opera albums I ever owned, and one of the definitive recordings of that score. Along with the young Luciano Pavarotti and Sherrill Milnes in the title role, this album is one of the classics in that golden age of opera studio recording. Alongside Pavarotti, she recorded opera's basic repertory (and then some) in one classic album after another, nearly all, conducted by her husband Richard Bonynge. In Giacomo Puccini's Turandot, a recording which also featured Luciano as Calaf, and which was led by Zubin Mehta, she tackled the title role of the icy empress, abandoning bel canto and entering into a realm which at that time was dominated by Birgit Nilsson. Quite often, critics, when mentioning the strength of Sutherland's voice, would comment that she would have made a great Wagnerian. And she did: as the Forest Bird in John Culshaw's titanic recording of Richard Wagner's Siegfried conducted by Sir Georg Solti.
She certainly had her critics. They mostly complained of her acting, and of the fact that her Italian and overall diction left something to be desired. They were right. It was often hard to understand the words that she sang. I remember one of the many Live from Lincoln Center programs where she performed the aria "I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls" from the operetta The Bohemian Girl by Michale William Balfe, and wondering what language she was singing in. Still, the beauty of her tone more than made up for it.
Let's listen to Joan Sutherland's beautiful voice once more. The following video is from the Sydney Opera House where Sutherland had her first early triumphs. Here she is in the opera Norma singing "Casta Diva," once again conducted by Maestro Bonynge. I can't think of a better way to remember Joan Sutherland than by listening to her in one of her signature roles.