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The Art of Beverly Sills
Ambroise THOMAS (1811-1896)

Mignon: Oui pour ce soir ... Je suis Titania
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)

Manon: Allons! Il le faut ... Adieu notre petite table; Je marche sur tous les chemins ... Obeissons quand leur voix appelle
Gustave CHARPENTIER (1860-1956)

Louise: Depuis le jour
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)

Linda di Chamounix: Ah! Tardai troppoO luce di Quest'anima
Lucia di Lammermoor: Regnava nel silenzio
Roberto Devereux: L'amor suo mi fe' beata ... Nunzio son
Maria Stuarda: O nube che lieve per l'aria
Anna Bolena: Cielo a' miei lunghi spasimi ... Coppia iniqua
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)

I puritani: Fini me lassa!; Vienni fra queste braccia
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)

Les contes d'Hoffmann: Les oiseaux dans la charmille; Elle a fui la tourterelle
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Zaïde: Ruhe sanft mein holdes Leben
Richard HEUBERGER (1850-1914)

Der Opernball: Im chambre séparée
Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948)

Die lustige Witwe: Vilja-Lied
Douglas MOORE (1893-1969)

The Ballad of Baby Doe: Gold is a fine thing - Silver Aria
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)

Die tote Stadt: Gluck das mir verblieb - Mariettas Lied
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Daphne: Was blendet so - Ich komme
Sechs Lieder op.19/2 Breit uber mein Haupt dein schwarzes Haar
Beverly Sills (soprano)
Recorded 1959 (Baby Doe) and between 1969 and 1973 with various orchestras, conductors and recording venues.
Bargain price
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 471-766 2 [2CDs: 134.31]

Born Beverly Silverman in Brooklyn in 1929 she was nicknamed ‘Bubbles’ as a child and it stuck, within the trade, throughout her career. It was a career that started as a child, singing an early commercial jingle for ‘Rinso’. (Those of ‘a certain age’ will remember the World War 2 days, when ‘Persil’ and ‘Rinso’ shared Monday’s soapsud duopoly, at least in the U.K.). By her early teens Sills was having serious vocal training with a renowned teacher and laying the foundations to a technique that was to be her mainstay throughout her career. She made her professional debut in 1947 and then worked and toured with various U.S. opera companies before making her debut with the New York City Opera in 1955. She went on to become unofficial prima donna of the NYCO. However, Sills’ international career did not take off until that company moved to the Lincoln Center in 1966 where she had a spectacular success in the florid role of Cleopatra in Handel’s Julius Caesar. First appearances in Vienna (1967), La Scala (1969) and Covent Garden (1970) were made to acclaim, but she had to wait until 1975 for setting foot in her hometown international house, The Met, when they mounted The Siege of Corinth for her. She later sang Violetta, Lucia, Thais and Norina there. Throughout her career Sills remained faithful to the City Opera who mounted many bel-canto works for her, particularly Donizetti’s Three Tudor Queens. After her retirement from singing, in 1979, she was, for 10 years, general director of the company.

Sills’ voice was that of a superbly schooled lyric coloratura soprano, the high notes, and there are plenty on these discs, are hit not slid up to. Added to that was the singer’s skill as an actress. On stage, like Callas, she became the part she was portraying. Whereas Joan Sutherland, who assayed much the same fach contemporaneously with Sills, had a fuller tone, Sills’ lighter, whiter voice (in no way meant to be critic-speak for thin or shrill!), with greater clarity of diction, allied to her histrionic strengths, had an overwhelming effect in the theatre. Enough of the eulogy, some of which is contained in English, French and German in the booklet which only otherwise contains dates of recording, venues, conductors and supporting artists. No attempt is made to indicate the context of the extracts or give a synopsis; shame. Except for The Ballad of Baby Doe (disc 2 tr.6) recorded in 1959, all of the contents are from recital and complete opera albums recorded between 1969 and 1973. This was the period of the height of the Sills’ international fame, when there was a rush to get her into the studio and cash in on the attendant euphoria, particularly in the U.S.A. In the complete operas recorded by Sills, the ‘supporting’ casts are of the highest standard; Bergonzi in Lucia, Gedda in Puritani, heard here (disc 1 tr.8).

In the 2002/03 edition of the DG Catalogue, when the number but not the title of this disc was settled, the latter is given provisionally as ‘The Great Beverly Sills’. I am glad that title didn’t stick. By the highest vocal standards alone Sills’ voice falls short. Compare her ‘Depuis le jour’ (disc 1 tr.4) with say that of the current US diva of the day, Renée Fleming, (Decca 458-858 2), and one can appreciate the benefits of the vocal colour that the younger singer brings even when there is no failing in Sills’ characterisation. In the Bellini and Donizetti, the larger part of disc 1, Sills is in her true metier. The same compelling strengths occur where her recordings overlap those of Joan Sutherland who had the inestimable benefit of a consistent partner, Pavarotti, at least in her later versions. Neither Gedda in the Puritani (disc 1 tr.8) excerpt, or Stuart Burrows in the Anna Bolena is of that standard. However Sills’ singing is pure as crystal with the notes hit unflinchingly. She has all the requisite coloratura ‘needle’, with characterisation good and diction even better. Certainly, in the latter respects, this is far superior to that provided by Sutherland.

Disc 2 is more eclectic with arias from Hoffman, Zaide and by Heuberger, Lehár, Korngold and Richard Strauss as well as ‘Baby Doe’. The latter, well recorded in 1958, shows the high level of legato and control that remained with Sills at least through the period of these recordings. Her Vilja Lied is particularly enjoyable (disc 2 tr.5) even if her German is not exemplary. From the same sessions at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls in May 1971, in her interpretation of Korngold’s Marietta, a quick vibrato, even flutter, is evident in the voice. Maybe Sills’ normal even legato was tested by Rudel’s tempi. On this second disc the singer’s strengths seemed out of keeping with Strauss’s Daphne (tr 8). She is better in the brief Op.19 lied by the same composer (tr.9).

The recordings are all of good standard with the singer forward of the orchestra and the voice caught in all its purity without any microphone edge. The conducting too is of a uniformly good standard. Purchasers will find much to enjoy in this issue and I hope to see it featured in future issues of DG’s catalogue for some years to come. Sills’ complete recordings of the Donizetti ‘Queens’, Puritani and Lucia were only indicated as issued on CD in Britain in the autumn of 2001 and summer 2002, yet they do not feature in that catalogue nor do I see them when browsing in superstores; ominous? Certainly, Sills’ recordings are, in my view, preferable to the similarly clear toned Gruberova on the ‘Nightingale’ label particularly in respect of ‘supporting’ casts. I can but hope that the Sills versions haven’t disappeared into the ether, or more realistically, into the bowels of the Universal Archive to emerge only at some anniversary or lamentable event.

Robert J Farr

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