It really is the most wonderful time of the year. The air is frosty, trees and houses twinkle with colorful lights, and a Christmas carol is never far away. Speaking of Christmas carols, opera fans are particularly lucky in that so many opera singers have lent their voices to renditions of Christmas classics. While some divas have contributed songs to compilation CDs, just as many have recorded solo albums. Over this next month (Every Monday and Friday), I’ll be highlighting a new diva Christmas album. We kick off today with Joan Sutherland‘s resplendent “Joy to the World.”
“Joy to the World” (Elsewhere released as “Joy of Christmas”) was the first operatic Christmas album I really fell in love with, and the more I have listened to it, the more I have understood why I liked it so much. Sutherland was still very much in her prime in 1965 when the album was recorded and her vocal gifts are ever apparent. Though her problems with clear diction are evident, she manages to shape the familiar phrases of classic carols into something truly unique, and her bright, ringing voice communicates all of the joys of the Christmas season. The album consists of entirely Christmas standards (including the most sparklingly efficient renditions of “O Holy Night” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” you could ever hope to hear) with a couple less-predictable pieces spliced in. Douglas Gamley’s orchestral arrangements are bright, bombastic, and grandiose when needed (often), refreshingly layered and restrained in pieces like “O Divine Redeemer,” and balance nicely with Sutherland’s voice in vocal showcase songs (“Angels We Have Heard on High”). The singing is clean and ornaments are few and tasteful, though “Deck the Halls” ends the album on a literal and figurative “high note.” Sutherland’s husband and collaborator, Richard Bonynge, leads the New Philharmonia Orchestra in top form and the Ambrosian Singers provide a pleasant backdrop to some numbers, but they never overshadow the star (of Bethlehem?).
Be it a weakness in regards to continuity throughout the album or a strength in regards to Sutherland’s ingenuity and creativity, each song is given a different interpretation with different songs receiving vastly different treatments. There is not one overarching characteristic across the album as opposed to some singers who sing all Christmas music the same, but that means that every song presents an opportunity to be heard with fresh ears in Sutherland’s oft-inspired interpretations. “Joy to the World” is exactly what its title says it is: a joy to listen to.