Joan Sutherland’s radiant soprano stretched effortlessly over more than three octaves, with a purity of tone that made her one of the most celebrated opera singers of all time.
Acclaimed “La Stupenda,” — “the Stupendous One” — during a career spanning more than four decades, Sutherland was known in the opera world as an “anti-diva” whose warm vibrant sound and subtle coloring helped revitalize the school of early 19th-century Italian opera known as bel canto.
She died on Sunday at her home near Geneva, Switzerland, after what her family described as a long illness. She was 83.
Superlatives were attached to Sutherland’s name from the moment she made her Italian debut in the title role of Handel’s Alcina in Venice, Italy, in 1960.
Luciano Pavarotti proclaimed hers “the voice of the century,” while to English-speaking opera goers she was “The Incomparable” for her mastery of coloratura — the ability to effortlessly sing difficult trills and rapid passages in high registers.
The late tenor Pavarotti, who joined with mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne in Sutherland’s farewell gala recital at London’s Covent Garden on Dec. 31, 1990, called her “the greatest coloratura soprano of all time.”
“Her voice came straight into my ear; it was as if she was singing in my ear,” Horne told reporters on Monday.
As her good friend Sutherland lay dying in Switzerland, Horne said she “couldn’t sleep all night. It was almost as if I was keeping vigil.”
She said she waited until 4am, when it was “a decent hour” in Europe, and called Sutherland’s husband, conductor Richard Bonynge.
“Ricky told me, ‘She’s gone,’” said Horne, adding that -Sutherland had suffered from a heart ailment for several years.
Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, who first worked with Sutherland when he made his US debut in 1961, rated his appearances opposite her in productions of the bel canto opera Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met and in Hamburg as “among the greatest stage experiences of my life.”
“That magnificent voice, with its enormous range and power, and the interpretations she brought not only to standard repertoire operas but also to bel canto works that had nearly been forgotten, ensure a permanent place for her in the history of our art,” Domingo said.
With a resplendent soprano capable of effortless flights from low G to high C and beyond, the Australian-born Sutherland could have evolved in many operatic directions. While under contract at Covent Garden, she sang Mozart, Poulenc, Verdi — even Wagner.
However, her 1954 marriage to Bonynge, a fellow Australian who became Sutherland’s coach, set her on her future path, taking on the major roles of early 19th-century Italian bel canto opera.
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