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Dame Joan Sutherland’s best operatic roles

To many, Joan Sutherland was the greatest bel canto soprano ever to have appeared on the world’s stages. George Hall remembers some of her most outstanding roles and performances

Dame Joan Sutherland's best operatic roles

Lucia di Lammermoor

When Joan Sutherland sang the title role of Donizetti’s tragic melodrama at the Royal Opera House on 17 February 1959, she brought the house down. She also gave Covent Garden audiences their first experience of the opera since a single performance in 1925. This was the role that made Sutherland an international star, and she returned to it frequently, including for her debuts at the Paris Opéra, La Scala and the Met, singing it 221 times in all.

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Semiramide

Rossini’s most ornate Italian opera had long fallen out of fashion when Sutherland took on the challenge of its title role at La Scala in 1962. Two years later, in New York, she sang it in concert opposite Marilyn Horne, repeating it in stagings in Boston and Chicago. Already dubbed by the mezzo the ‘druid duo’ for their appearances together in Norma, Sutherland’s flawlessly matched teamwork with Horne in Semiramide has passed into operatic legend.

Marguerite de Valois in Les Huguenots

In its heyday, Meyerbeer’s grand opera was known as ‘the night of seven stars’ for the number of major singers required to do it justice. Sutherland (pictured, right, in the role) took part in such a night at La Scala in 1962, debuting in the role alongside Franco Corelli and Simionato. Thereafter the opulent coloratura of Meyerbeer’s queen remained with her right up to the end of her career, when she made it the vehicle for her final full opera production, in Sydney in 1990.

Marie in La fille du régiment

Since most of her characters were tragic figures who either died violently, or went mad, or both, Sutherland seized the opportunity to have some fun in Donizetti’s lightweight comedy The Daughter of the Regiment, starring opposite Luciano Pavarotti in a Covent Garden production in 1966 that moved on to New York six years later, with Sutherland playing the down-to-earth tomboy heroine with immeasurable relish.

Esclarmonde

Massenet’s opera was created in 1889 as a vehicle for the glamorous American soprano Sybil Sanderson, whose stratospheric top register put the role out of the range of almost all subsequent sopranos. Not Sutherland, however, for whom this great rarity was revived at San Francisco in 1974, in a production that later travelled to the Met and Covent Garden, and which became her favourite opera.

We named Joan Sutherland one of the greatest sopranos of all time

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Top image credit: Getty Images