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Beverly Sills – Made in America
see end of review for details
Beverly Sills (soprano)
A Thirteen/WNET production, written by John Walker
rec. 1933-77. PCM stereo, NTSC
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 734299 [83:00 + 29:00 bonus]



Belle Silverman, the precocious Shirley Temple look-alike who went on to become Beverly Sills, one of the great coloratura sopranos of the last century, does indeed embody the American Dream.
 
Born to immigrant parents from Brooklyn she made her debut at the age of four. Even after she retired from the stage in 1980 she went on to become general director of the New York City Opera, chairman of the Metropolitan Opera and a tireless fund-raiser for the arts. In spite of her considerable achievements she seems to have been most popular by far in America and, as John Walker’s tribute reveals, she always stayed loyal to her roots.
 
The disc opens with Sills near the end of her career, singing Massenet’s Manon at the New York City Opera in 1977. Instantly one is captivated by the charisma of the woman, not to mention the formidable vocal technique. The remaining items on the first track set the stage for what is to follow, an entertaining mix of Broadway melodies, opera excerpts and snippets from the American TV talk-show circuit.
 
One of the more surreal moments comes in the archive footage of the self-assured seven year old singing Arditi’s ‘Il Bacio’ on the one-reeler Uncle Sol Solves It (1936). For a moment one is reminded of Robert Altman’s Gothic take on precocious talent in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? These frankly toe-curling talent shows – no doubt the pushy mothers were hovering in the wings – were de rigueur for the up and coming stars of stage and screen and Belle Silverman’s mother must have pushed with the best of them.
 
Even the limited dynamics of these early clips hint at Sills’ vocal talents but it is the sheer determination and drive of the young star that comes across most forcefully. Despite her stratospheric soprano – heard to great effect in the excerpts that follow – Sills has an engagingly down to earth manner. Her relaxed, often amusing, appearances on the TV chat shows of the day simply reinforce the impression of a diva without the temperament to match.
 
Behind the slightly goofy TV persona – and Sills really was a product of the radio and TV age – lies an artist of considerable talent. The brief excerpt from her 1971 Lucia does not erase memories of Sutherland in that role but, goodness, the vocal range and control are just astonishing. Ditto her Queen of the Night from Mozart’s Zauberflöte, ‘Da tempeste il legno infranto’ from Handel’s Giulio Cesare and ‘Je suis Titania’ from Thomas’ Mignon.
 
Working as a club singer the young Sills earned enough in tips to take her mother to Paris for two months but it wasn’t until 1969 that she made the return trip to Europe and her debut at La Scala, Milan. Her ‘Cielo! Che diverró?’ from this production of Rossini’s L’Assedio di Corinto and the photographs of the occasion suggest a commanding artist at the height of her powers. The notoriously fickle and partisan Italian press loved her but it seems that America was where she was destined to make a lasting impact.
 
Which is all the more surprising, given that Sills only made her Met debut in April 1975. The reasons for this are not altogether clear, although the Met’s general director at the time, Rudolf Bing, was part of the equation. Sills reprised her La Scala triumph with L’Assedio but remained loyal to her first company, the New York City Opera, where she made her farewell appearance in 1980. By diva standards it was a fairly restrained occasion, capped by a touching rendition of ‘Time has come for me to leave you’.
 
As I suggested earlier Sills was no stranger to the TV chat shows and was more than ready for a bit of self-parody when required. Her tap-dancing, skirt-swishing Grand Ole Opry sketch for The Muppet Show and her appearances with comediennes Carol Burnett and Lily Tomlin are good examples of this. And listen out for the Nebraska anecdote recounted on The Dick Cavett Show – very funny indeed and a wonderful example of Sills’ self-deprecating style.
 
An equally refreshing aspect of this tribute is that it isn’t an endless loop of fawning praise - with the mercifully brief exception of The Boston Globe’s Mike Steinberg. There is no vanity here either – how could there be, given Sills’ parade of weird and wonderful hairdos and frightful frocks – and one senses that it is indeed much easier to take the girl out of Brooklyn than it is to take Brooklyn out of the girl.
 
John Walker has managed to achieve a good balance between Beverly Sills the diva and Belle Silverman the talented little Jewish girl from New York. The operatic excerpts – from a rather awkward Violetta in the 1955 Opera Cameos to Zerbinetta’s aria from Ariadne auf Naxos (1969) and her fizzing ‘Una voce poco fa’ from Rossini’s Barber (New York City Opera, 1976) – give a good indication of her vocal and dramatic range but anyone interested in hearing Sills in complete operas should definitely sample her hard-to-find Lucia di Lammermoor (Westminster Legacy 4712502). Sills’ recorded legacy is more extensive than one might expect and there are a number of recital discs available as well.
 
The DVD booklet has detailed track and performance information, plus some striking photographs, an essay entitled ‘Beverly Sills: A Musical Retrospective’ and a short biography. Picture and sound quality on the DVD are variable to say the least but this hardly matters.
 
This is a uniquely American story, deftly edited and engagingly told. There is only a hint of personal unhappiness – Sills’ daughter was born deaf, her son mentally retarded – but the film never descends into mawkishness. Opera buffs may feel a little short-changed by the number of ‘showbiz tunes’ included on the disc but there is enough of the ‘serious stuff’ to keep them watching anyway. All in all a well-rounded portrait of a marvellous talent and a truly down-to-earth diva.
 
Dan Morgan

Full track listing
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
‘Non disperar, chi sa?’ and ‘Da tempeste il legno infranto’ – Giulio Cesare
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
‘The vengeance of hell seethes in my heart’ – The Magic Flute, K620 (sung in English)
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
’Una voce poco fa’ – Il barbiere di Siviglia
‘So anch’io la virtu magica – Don Pasquale
‘Cielo! Che diverro?’ – L’Assedio di Corinto
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Mad Scene – Lucia di Lammermoor
‘Ecco l’indegno – Roberto Devereux
Ambroise THOMAS (1811-1896)
‘Je suis Titania’ – Mignon
Giuseppe VERDI
‘Sempre libera’ – La Traviata
‘Caro nome’ Rigoletto
Luigi ARDITI (1822-1903)
‘Il Bacio’
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
‘Obéissons, quand leur voix appelle, aux tendres amours’ and ‘Adieu, notre petite table’ – Manon
Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948)
’Every Movement’ – The Merry Widow
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
 ‘Großmächtige Prinzessin’ – Ariadne auf Naxos, Op. 60 
Douglas MOORE (1893-1969)
‘Willow where we met together’ – The Ballad of Baby Doe
 Jerome KERN (1885-1945)/Oscar HAMMERSTEIN II (1895-1960)
‘All the Things You Are’
Sigmund ROMBERG (1887-1951)/Dorothy FIELDS (1905-1974)
‘Close as Pages in a Book’
Victor HERBERT (1859-1924)/Harry B. SMITH (1860-1936)
‘Art is Calling For Me’
Nat VINCENT (1889-1979)/Fred HOWARD
‘When the Bloom Is On the Sage’
Sigmund ROMBERG (1887-1951)
‘Wanting You’
Fats WALLER (1904-1943) Andy RAZAF (1895-1973)
‘Find Out What They Like’
Medley – Pot-pourri (with Danny Kaye)
Medley with Carol Burnett
Beverly Sills on Our Gal Sunday (CBS weekday serial)
‘Time Has Come For me To Leave You’ (arrangement of Portuguese folksong)

 


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