The epithets were all deserved. Voice of the Century? Yes, absolutely. La Stupenda? I can’t imagine applying the words to anyone else. Orthodoxy compelled one to place Joan Sutherland a close second to Maria Callas when assessing the greatest sopranos of the 20th century. But this is to compare two incommensurable talents, and I never felt when listening to Sutherland that I was getting second best.
The Australian soprano died on Sunday in Switzerland at age 83. She had long retired from the stage, gracefully, and well before she left a significant legacy of below-par performance. And she had a grand life, triumphant on stages across the world, filled with lasting accomplishment. She left an unsurpassed body of work on recording, and she may never be outclassed in her greatest roles.
But even so, I find I it shocking, and sad, to learn of her death. I came of age as an opera lover just a bit too late to hear her on stage, and even if I had been so lucky, I would not have heard her at her best. But the blue-and-red spines on her Decca recordings are still some of the most frequent recordings in rotation in my house. And if I want to be sure how something should sound, singing in its ideal form and unblemished by any hesitation or technical inadequacy, it’s to Sutherland I inevitably turn.
When I saw the headlines, I made a mental catalog of all her performances that are indelibly imprinted on my memory. For some reason, it was one of the artistically most inconsequential, yet vocally radiant, of her roles that came first to mind. Sutherland singing “Esprits de l’air, Esprits de l’onde” from Massenet’s “Esclarmonde” is pure wonder, power and enchantment, an ensorcelling display of virtuosity that will never be matched. Her voice can still summon us all.