Joan Sutherland's finest moments

A trio of reissued recordings that capture the magical artistry and stunning coloratura of the great Joan Sutherland

Australian dramatic coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland (born 1926) was one of the 20th century’s great voices. Dubbed ‘La Stupenda’, she began her career as a Wagnerian soprano but famously discovered her ability for seemingly effortless, stratospheric coloratura of laser-beam precision – and her true calling performing bel canto repertoire – thanks to her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge. 

Sutherland’s most famous and often-performed role was the tragic Lucy Ashton in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. In Decca’s reissued 1971 recording (478 1513) she is joined by a superb cast – Luciano Pavarotti in his golden prime as Edgardo and a powerful Sherrill Milnes as the manipulative Enrico. In the famous ‘mad’ scene, Sutherland’s purity and fearless technical skill are breathtaking, yet earlier in the work there’s a thickening of the middle voice – a swallowed sound. It’s fascinating, therefore, that this generously packaged reissue includes highlights from Sutherland’s 1959 and 1961 recordings of Lucia. The difference is clear: her voice is youthful, limpid and utterly beautiful throughout its range. No wonder her 1959 debut in the role at Covent Garden caused such a sensation. Sutherland was not just a bel canto canary – she was also a champion of Handel’s vocal music at a time when it was still a curiosity. 

In a reissue from 1959 (DG 477 8017) she breathes ice and fire as the spurned sorceress in the title role of an off-air recording of Alcina – a heavily cut version. The other star is tenor Fritz Wunderlich, inauthentic perhaps but wonderful in the castrato role of the knight Ruggiero. However, despite the Baroque pitch and the performers’ best intentions, the music’s lingering phrasing makes this a challenging listen, demonstrating just how much performance practice has changed in 50 years. 

Fast forward to 1968 and Sutherland is again joined by Pavarotti for a classic recording of Donizetti’s French comic opera La fille du régiment (Decca 478 1366). She is stunning as the tomboyish Marie, combining a cheeky sense of fun with real pathos. Her voice is bright and clear and she throws off the role’s fiendish coloratura with insouciant ease. The whole cast – clearly enjoying themselves – is excellent. A delight to listen to.