It's not often that you can observe with absolute confidence that someone was or is the best. But that is the accurate, if concise, description of Joan Sutherland, the coloratura soprano who died yesterday at 83. I was lucky enough to see and hear her sing several times and I have never heard another soprano who could perform some of the hardest roles in opera with such ease and confidence. There was never any struggling with Sutherland--whether it was a trill, a run, or just a series of incredible high notes that others might not dare to try, not only did she manage all of it successfully butshe made it look easy.
Although the obits focused on Lucia, in which she made her debuts at both the Met and La Scala, to me her finest moments came in Bellini's Norma. Callas had revived this pillar of the bel canto repertory but it had languished in the years since her passing from the scene. We also should recall that despite Callas's fantastic dramatic presence--on and off the stage--she was not always anywhere close to perfection in her singing. Sutherland famously played a bit part to Callas's Norma at Covent Garden--it is instructive that Maria told her that she had a great future.
Norma is a brute of an opera. First of all, it is long and the demands on the title role never diminish. Luckily for Sutherland, she was matched in the Met's great production with Marilyn (Jackie) Horne, a mezzo whose range in her realm was comparable to Sutherland's mastery of the top of the scale. Their duets as Norma and Adalgisa became the classic renditions of those beautiful operatic moments.
My first chance to see this spectacle was at a ridiculous venue, the Hynes Auditorium in Boston where the Met then appeared on the first stop of its annual national tour, now sadly discontinued. The Met reputedly had never before sold standing-room tickets at Hynes but this time, the clamor was so overwhelming that they made an exception and I was among the standees, off on yet another diversion from studying for my first-year law school exams. Like everyone else, I was amazed at how easy Sutherland made this challenging role--one that even Callas had had her problems handling--and what a beautiful sound she produced.
Living in New York, I managed to see the next great Sutherland occasion--the revival of Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment (La Fille du Regiment--the Italian composers often had French libretti for the Paris Opera). This was where she took the stage with someone she had a major part in discovering, the young Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who joined her in hitting the parade of high Cs,Ds, and Es with which Donizetti, last of the bel canto maestri, laced his score. Not only was this a singing triumph for both of them, but I felt this was the one time when the costume designers served Sutherland, a large woman, well, as she appeared throughout the first act in a snappy, attractive military uniform.
While I never did see her in Lucia--although I heard her on broadcasts several times--I feel I was greatly privileged to have witnessed Sutherland at her best, and she never did give a bad performance. It was just something she didn't do. Had she lived in an earlier age, she might have given us as a present what Nellie Melba, the only other Australian soprano to whom she could conceivably be compared, sometimes performed as an encore: the Mad Scene from Lucia. She of course is preserved on records and tapes--we have next to nothing good of Melba, alas--and perhaps my favorite moment to listen to comes from her recording of Verdi's Rigoletto, made with Domingo and Sherrill Milnes, when she sings the great duet--usually called a cabaletta--at the end of Act II (or III, in the original and old Met version) with Milnes in the title role and they each reach for a high note in succession just as the curtain is about to fall.
Hearing the massive applause that invariably followed that rendition--alas, not present on the recording--is perhaps the best testimony to the excitement that Sutherland engendered in the opera house. There was no one in her class in my time.