The first delight of this set was a purely visual one - Decca had the great vision to reproduce the original LP sleeve images on each of the individual disks/sets in this collection. As I turned the discs over, the old, familiar, and well-loved, images of "Our Joan" brought back many memories of discovery, astonishment and almighty pleasure.
"La Stupenda" and "The Voice of the Century", were the headlines that hailed her early performances. A God-given voice and a flawless technique, underpinned by dedication and sheer hard work, propelled Joan Sutherland into a commanding place in the history of Opera. She occupied this place for most of the last half of the 20th century.
Her last public performance in the UK was a recital in Newcastle, which had its first half cut short by a bomb threat. We all trouped out into the cold street, and stood for 45 agonising minutes before being allowed back into the theatre. When we were all settled, the host for the evening appeared, and announced that the programme would take up from the first item after the planned interval ,whereupon he was interrupted with a loud "Young Man," from the wings. On strode Our Joan to declare that she still had an aria to sing and no bomb threat was going to stop her! We were rewarded with a gauntlet-flashing rendition of Santo di Patria, from Verdi's Attila. The evening finished very late, but Joan and Richard were there at the stage door smilingly chatting, and signing everything we pushed at them, well into the small hours. Outside, because we all thought that this could indeed be the last time we might hear and see her live, car stereo systems played her recordings at full belt. This was not the mere adulation of besotted and faddy fans, but respect and thanks for almost half a century of dedicated professionalism and, well, selfless giving.
This set has revived for me all of those memories of course, but it is, naturally much more than that. It is, perhaps, both a unique record of a great singer's dedication to her art, and a valuable record of her development as a singer. Throughout her career, most professional critics seem to have missed the point of Joan Sutherland: She was a musician in possession of a most wonderful instrument, which she and Richard Bonynge, protected, nurtured and developed through right through her long career. Late in her career, one critic had the insight to write of her "Com'e Bello" from Lucrezia Borgia that she "actually projects the music, not her own voice" sustaining "the line quite magnificently through a welter of decoration". The event was a Gala Performance to mark the 30th anniversary of her first appearance at Covent Garden. The same Times critic went on to write that in the "Mira O Norma, Sutherland used the consonants to sharpen the sound and to propel it with brilliant focus". Well, the simple truth is that Sutherland had been doing this for many years- she acted with her voice.
The old argument of "Prima la musica, poi le parole" was ignored, if indeed it was ever understood, by the "with it" critics in the 60's and 70's when they forcibly moved the focus of Opera critique from the musical to the visual aspects of a performance. Their new paradigm is now so established that the Director and Costume Designer - and goodness knows what other backstage apparatchiks - all get top billing, with the musicians reduced to small type as a kind of afterthought. However, without the music, Opera is nothing. NO opera singer is, or can be, a consummate actor or actress - those who thought they were, dismally failed when they transferred to the dramatic stage/film set. The simple fact is that, in Opera, the music places severe constraints on a performer's freedom of timing and of movement and, indeed of histrionics. When these things are introduced into a performance on the Opera stage the Opera disappears.
As noted in the booklet, the studio recordings collected in this set are an essential adjunct Sutherland's recordings of her core operatic repertoire. Some, are rare records of the range of Sutherland's musical interests. The "Love Live Forever", Noel Coward and "Talking Pictures" disks naturally stand out, but so does the "Serate Musicali" which remains the only major studio example of the Sutherland/Bonynge voice/piano partnership which thrilled so many audiences over the years. The extraordinary 1987 Romantic Trios for Soprano, Horn and Piano in which Sutherland and Bonynge are joined by Barry Tuckwell is a truly fitting farewell to the studio by a consummate artiste who was then a month shy of her 61st birthday.
These 23 disks are an astonishing record, spanning 20 studio performances from 1958 to 1987, by an artiste whose voice, innate musicality and sheer hard work and dedication rightfully earned her those headline acclamations of "La Stupenda" and "The Voice of the Century".
But there was another acclamation, and one which I believe she treasured more, and that was "Our Joan". For all the fame and adulation that, rightfully, came her way, she never lost touch with her own roots, her audience and her plain Aussie humanity. No histrionics, no tantrums, no walking off at the last minute - just dedication, and an obvious pleasure in being able to give pleasure. To her legion of fans, the enduring image of "Our Joan" will always be her unflappable good humour when hundreds of us would keep her stuck in a draughty Stage Door signing autographs and making simple chat for up to three hours after a Lucia, Marie, Leonora, Lucrezia, Anna Bolena - or a bomb scare!
To sum up, for Joan's fans, this was a wonderful Christmas present from Decca, for the upcoming generation of Opera lovers, this is a set which will define for you the essential parameters of the Bel Canto era, but also the high standards of musicality, dedication and sheer hard work that go to make a great Operatic Voice, something that the younger generation of singers conspicuously seem to lack. Treasure it, it truly is the Voice of the 20th Century.