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Top Five Joan Sutherland Roles

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Obituaries, eulogies, honorariums celebrating the life and career of Dame Joan Sutherland who died last week at 83, have been flooding the media. Over her six decades on the stage and in the recording studio, she made an indelible mark on the opera world. Though she succeeded in roles as diverse as Turandot (which she recorded with Zubin Mehta) and Olympia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, there are certain roles that cannot be referenced without mentioning her interpretations. Here are the top five Joan Sutherland operatic roles.

1. Of all the women of opera that Dame Joan Sutherland portrayed, none won her more attention than Lucia di Lammermoore. She triumphed in it first at Covent Garden, then at Paris, Milan and New York. At the Metropolitan Opera, the opening night production stopped to a halt for 12 minutes as audiences applauded her Act II Mad Scene.

2. Lucia may have earned her fame, but the title role in Handel’s Alcina earned her her nickname. Venice audiences dubbed her La Stupenda following her 1960 performance as the sorceress. The name stuck as well as the role – her American debut at the Dallas Opera was in Alcina. She also brought increased attention to long neglected Handel operas as she had with bel canto.

3. In 1952, Sutherland sang a bit part to Maria Callas in Bellini’s Norma. Several years later, she would take over as the Druid priestess. Today, debates rage over which soprano sang the better Casta diva. In 1970, the Metropolitan Opera designed a new production around her and the anticipated debut of the young mezzo, Marilyn Horne, as Adalgisa. 

4. When Sutherland celebrated the 25th anniversary of her debut at the Met, she chose to celebrate as Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani. Another bel canto masterpiece, I Puritani has its own mad scene full of vocal pyrotechnics to rival the one in Lucia. Sutherland’s husband, coach and frequent collaborator, even discovered a lost final aria, deemed to difficult for the trained singer, but a perfect vehicle for his wife.

5. After Norma and Lucia, the role Sutherland inhabited most often was Violetta from La Traviata. Arias such as Sempre libre showcased her virtuousic bel canto technique, while the Act III Addio del passato showed her ability as a great verismo singer, one that could have easily dominated Wagnerian and Verdian roles (Dame Joan did take her share of Aidas, Gilda, and Leonoras) if she had so chosen.