Joan Sutherland – Two Tributes (Gramophone, November 2010) by John Steane and Edward Greenfield
We knew her first as a profile: a chin even. She was up there with Wotan’s noisy daughters, waving a spear, and tallest of them all. The chin: even without the voice it was a distinguishing feature (none of the other Valkyries stay in the memory at all, though, I find on consulting the books, that there included Constance Shacklock, Edith Coates and Monica Sinclair). And now, the books remind me, this was not, of course, the first time after all. There had been numerous Aidas, where in the first interval one made a point of applying to the programme to find the still-unfamiliar name of the High Priestess who had sung her mystic chant so beautifully off-stage.
No chin signalled her presence on those occasions, but it did when she appeared as Lady Rich in Gloriana. Her voice lacked the sharpness of character which Jennifer Vyvyan had brought to the part, but, my goodness, that top C! That, surely enough, was a token of things to come.
But even this had not been the first time which, I now realise, was, for me, a very grand night indeed. I had come up to town on spec and had bought, one hour or so before curtain up, and at the cost of not much more than one pound, a seat in the stalls. The opera was Norma, the Norma Maria Callas, and for a total of perhaps 10, 15, minutes she shared the stage with her maid Clotilde, who was one Joan Sutherland. I remember two things about my feelings, one being of high indignation on reading in the next month’s Opera a mention of ‘the fluttering sounds emitted by the attendant in contrast to the firm tones of her mistress’. That had not been my impression. There was a lot to think about that night (it had been the first time I had heard either the opera or its heroine). But I remember thinking at some point: ‘Big name, little name…and is there really all that much difference?’
Similarly, a few years later, in 1955, at an early performance (maybe the premiere) of Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage, I remember wondering during the course of Jenifer’s solo in Act 1, whether I had ever heard coloratura singing to match this. I even extended the question, in my mind, to cover records. Tetrazzini, Melba, Sembrich… Even with these hallowed names in mind, I found it hard to believe that such freshness, fullness and freedom of sound as the young Joan Sutherland’s had been experienced, or at least surpassed, within those walls even in what I still thought of as the Golden Age. I believe that during these years I also heard her as Pamina in The Magic Flute, Micaëla in Carmen and Antonia in The Tales of Hoffmann.
Certainly she had become a very familiar and highly-valued singer before the great night of February 17, 1959. If any single Covent Garden performance before that had prepared the public for the extraordinary triumph of that occasion it was probably the London premiere of Handel’s Samson, given the previous November. As a number of critics observed, the production’s fate was very much in doubt until, right at the end, Sutherland, as the Israelite Woman, swung the balance with her blazing ‘Let the bright seraphim’. Even so, the Lucia di Lammermoor was sensational.
At the end of that first night, I was met by Ted Greenfield who (on duty for The Guardian at Westminster) had been unable to attend. He was standing with a group of critics who had just come out of the theatre. Oh, it had been ‘a success’, no doubt about that, but the quotation marks hung heavy in the air. ‘Bland’ was the general verdict, and ‘Didn’t that red wig look absurd!’ observed one of them. Afterwards I was able to tell Ted that he should take no notice. It had been stunning! The whole impersonation had a touching dignity about it. The beauty of Sutherland’s tone throughout had been crowned by the most glorious high notes; and for fullness and purity I could not think that anyone present in the house that night had heard its equal.
That was the birth of La Stupenda. A little later, the first Decca recital bore faithful witness – except in one important respect. I don’t think any of the recordings did justice to the house-filling generosity of the voice, at that time or later. And later records came to exaggerate certain features which were far less troublesome in the flesh. The rounded vowels, over-inflected phrases and (eventually) loosened vibrations were regrettable, but if these things, combined, accounted for one-quarter of the ‘live’ experience, the other three-quarters were taken up by the pure quality of tone, the brilliance of florid work, and the fullness of the voice in alt. And always there was that something extra which was Joan.
I heard her last on another great night, the New Year’s Eve Die Fledermaus, 1990. She was correct when, in her farewell speech, she acknowledged that ‘the old voice’ was giving notice. But at this great party she was the guest of honour (Marilyn Horne and Pavarotti in attendance). She stood there, in that capacious dress of a thousand spangles, and, moved as she must have been, while the house rose in her honour, kept the famous chin held high. John Steane
As Jane Austen says of Catherine in Northanger Abbey, you would never have expected her to become ‘an heroine’; so it was with Joan Sutherland. Tall and with a big frame, she was the opposite of the wilting, ailing soprano traditional in opera, yet became – through the help of such great stage directors as Franco Zeffirelli – a great actress, notably in the work in which she first achieved international success in February 1959, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
That was a night such as they had rarely, if ever, seen even at Covent Garden, the instantaneous recognition of a great soprano who had burst suddenly on the scene. That has been described repeatedly since then, but my personal memories illustrate the very human Joan, the Joan determined not to take herself too seriously as a heroine.
I specially remember the occasion when I was the British juror on the first Montreux International Record Critics Award. I was walking along the Grand-Rue in Montreux with my American colleague, when who should we meet but Joan Sutherland, out doing her shopping. She was surprised to see ‘critics in Montreux’ near where she lived at Les Avants in the mountains behind, so we asked her what plans she had at that moment. ‘Just a few Sonnambulas at the Met’ she said nonchalantly, adding, ‘but I’m getting a bit long-in-the-tooth for that role!’ (this was many years ago). She then promptly tripped across the pavement carrying her shopping basket in a pose that hilariously imitated the heroine of Sonnambula.
I cannot imagine any other prima donna, let alone one of Sutherland’s eminence, sending herself up in such a jolly way. That natural jollity rather turned her away from darkly tragic roles, but in what she did tackle she was second to none. The important thing was that she was always willing, even eager, to take instruction from those she respected, not just in learning the art of acting on stage but in developing her voice. In that first production of Lucia she was lucky to have Tullio Serafin as a conductor and coach, but it was Sutherland’s husband Richard Bonynge who, against all the expectations of those who directed the Covent Garden company, led her towards dramatic coloratura roles, rather than towards heavily dramatic ones. What has sometimes been overlooked is just how big Sutherland’s voice was. That pointed towards a Wagnerian path, but Bonynge appreciated that, against the odds, Joan’s soprano and her gift for singing flexible coloratura, which he developed, was matchless. Also, it was Bonynge who, realising that Joan did not have the gift of perfect pitch, got her singing in a range far higher than she thought she could.
The result was a unique phenomenon and Sutherland’s patient development of her vocal technique under Bonynge’s tutelage completed the phenomenon. He was also instrumental in supporting her both as accompanist and conductor, an alliance she always warmly acknowledged. It was astonishing, too – no doubt the result of flawless technique – that she went on singing publicly into her sixties, doing her last Lucia at Covent Garden opposite Carlo Bergonzi, similarly a sexagenarian. We shall not see her like again. Edward Greenfield