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03 November, 2010

Vale Joan Sutherland.

Joan Sutherland RIP.

Yes, what days they were. Sydney was privileged to hear Sutherland’s middle and late career with a (then) good quality opera company. We also heard her great career retirement extravaganza which was the full-fledged French grand opera, Les Huguenots or the ‘night of seven stars’. Few provincial opera companies then or now would be able to muster such talents as Grant, Johnston, Austin, Pringle, Wegener, Thane, Sutherland. It was one of the saddest night of my life - of course I was just sorry for myself!

From about 1975 to 1990 I recall each year opening the new season’s brochure and being excited to read what opera(s) Sutherland and Bonynge would be doing next and who would sing with them. While the latter were not always as great, they were mostly superior singers to the standard we hear today at the Sydney Opera House. And each rose to the very substantial occasion, giving us all world class goose bumps year after year. I think that Lucrezia Borgia was her best, but comparisons may be odious. She did two seasons of it if I recall correctly. I have been listening to the YouTube video of the finale aria – a true coup-de-force to end an opera!

During those years we also heard Il Trovatore, Suor Angelica, Der Fledermaus, Lakme, Merry Widow, La Traviata, Otello, Tales of Hoffman, Lucia di Lammamoor, Norma, I Puritani, Semiramide, I Masnadieri, Huguenots, Dialogue of the Carmelites and Idomeneo (only the last two were disappointments for me - but I have very narrow opera tastes). The Lucia, Norma and Traviata were indeed immortal performances. She also did a Rigoletto in the Domain one year: I was in raptures.

It is hard to convey to a younger generation just what it meant when it was a ‘Sutherland night’ at the theatre. As well as the soprano, there were higher ‘gears’ for just about everybody in the place from the bar staff to the orchestra … not to mention that amazing buzz amongst the audience, some of whose members might have even heard Nellie Melba (albeit also past HER prime).

I recall that each year when La Stupenda commenced singing we may have wondered if she was still up to it. There was often a wobble and flutter and even some flat sounds. She definitely took some time to warm up but by the end of the initial recitative or aria she would launch into the most miraculous high-performance and unique vocal delivery for the remainder. It was no longer a “tsunami” of sound, just a large, moving, dancing vocalism which dazzled through every range of emotion, rhythm and texture. We shall not see or hear the likes again.

RIP big Joan.

Comment by Andrew Byrne ..