Soprano Joan Sutherland, legendary opera star and bel canto singer, dies at 83

Joan Sutherland with Luciano Pavarotti performing in Bellini's
Joan Sutherland with Luciano Pavarotti performing in Bellini's "I Puritani" in 1976 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (AP)
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By Anne Midgette Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 2010; 9:06 PM

Joan Sutherland, one of the greatest operatic sopranos of her generation and who created a legacy of recordings that remain unassailed benchmarks in the field, died Oct. 10 at her home near Geneva of undisclosed causes. She was 83.

Dubbed "La Stupenda" by Italian critics after her 1960 debut in Venice, the Australian-born Sutherland combined the vocal heft of a Wagnerian singer with the agility and high notes of a coloratura soprano.

She created powerful interpretations of great bel canto roles - the early 19th-century operas of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini - that had lain dormant for decades when Maria Callas began exploring them in the 1950s.

When Ms. Sutherland burst onto the scene with "Lucia di Lammermoor" in 1959, the repertory was hers for the taking.

One significant force in her development as a bel canto artist was Richard Bonynge, a pianist, vocal coach and fellow Australian with whom she performed in her youth.

After she went to London with prize money from a vocal competition to continue her studies, she re-encountered Bonynge, who helped her unlock and develop her upper register and rock-solid technical ability. He recognized that her voice, huge though it was, was better suited to the lyrical flights of a coloratura soprano than the belting of a Wagnerian one.

She married Bonynge in 1954, and he remained her artistic partner throughout her career, conducting most of her appearances and the majority of her legacy of recordings: Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," Bellini's "I Puritani" and "La Sonnambula," and Handel's "Alcina" among them.

After rocketing onto the world stage with her "Lucia" successes, Ms. Sutherland was an immediate superstar - and therefore a target for critics. She was often taken to task for her poor acting and mushy diction, and for her insistence on appearing with Bonynge. But audiences seldom tired of her glorious floods of sound, supported by spot-on intonation, musicianship and breath support.

"Her trill, ah, there is her chief joy," wrote music critic Paul Hume in The Washington Post in 1961, when she arrived in town to give a recital of opera arias shortly after her triumphant debuts at the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala. "She flashes it like a beacon guiding to safe harbor those who have longed to hear so even and natural a perfect thing."

Marilyn Horne, the American mezzo-soprano, Monday reminisced about Ms. Sutherland, with whom she appeared frequently throughout her career. "You have to know that it was an enormously big voice," Horne said. "In my entire life there were only a couple" of voices like that, she added. "When she sang and I was sitting in the hall, her voice went straight to my ear, as if she were singing in my ear."

Horne remembered sitting next to Ms. Sutherland before the concert performance of Bellini's "Beatrice di Tenda" that marked both singers' New York debuts. "Her [debut] was considerably more anticipated than mine," Horne observed dryly. "I remember thinking, 'Oh, my God, her head is twice as big as mine. That unbelievable head, and all that resonance ruminating around in there."

Ms. Sutherland was somewhat sensitive about her size. In the early years of her stardom, she was delighted to encounter a lumpy young Italian tenor who had just made his debut in England, and who happened to be tall. His name was Luciano Pavarotti.

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