Like so many live recordings not initially intended for commercial release this 38-year-old effort from the San Francisco Opera has its blemishes. And they are far from negligible. It was recorded in stereo but the balance leaves a lot to be desired. The orchestra dominates the voices and at orchestral tuttis the voices are completely overwhelmed. Even Beverly Sills’s penetrating high notes lose out. The internal balance of the orchestra is also problematic in more than one way. The harp in scene 2 is important but here it becomes the protagonist, extremely closely recorded while the voices seem a mile away.
The true quality of the orchestra is difficult to evaluate but there is a strident quality to the sound that irritates. It’s probably more due to the recording than the playing. In any event large portions of the opera give an impression of aggressiveness. To some extent I also think the conductor is to blame since he rather often chooses speeds that are on the fast side. The sextet is hard-driven and lacks magic and several of the choruses are rushed through. As always there is also a fair amount of applause, not only after arias but also at entrances, and the editing of them is rather clumsily done. In sum, the prospects for an enjoyable evening in front of the loudspeakers are not that favourable.
Still I believe many readers will be interested for the participation of at least two of the most charismatic singers of their generation – and in favourite roles too.
Beverly Sills has her admirers but also her detractors. The main problem with Ms Sills, the detractors say, is her rather thin and wiry tone and the somewhat fluttery vibrato. What makes Sills such a great artist, the admirers retort, is her deep identification with her roles and her expressivity. And, they usually add that her diction is crystal clear! Many readers probably remember these arguments in a sometimes heated debate on Sills vs Sutherland. I have myself come to value Sills very highly for precisely these merits while I can still regret that she didn’t have the rounded tone and the beauty of Sutherland’s voice.
Ms Sills took on Lucia rather late in her career, in 1968 when she was approaching forty. Up till her retirement some ten years later she repeated it a hundred times. She recorded the role in 1970 opposite Carlo Bergonzi and this has long been one of my favourite versions. Some time ago I got a Lucia
recorded live in Buenos Aires with Sills. It’s half a year earlier than this San Francisco performance. There she was partnered by Alfredo Kraus, one of the greatest stylists among tenors. It had the same balance problems with the voices rather distantly recorded. However in general it is far preferable to this San Francisco set. Sills is also in marginally fresher voice there but even though Regnava nel silenzio
is a little more effortful it is still wonderfully executed and the mad scene is as superb as ever.
Luciano Pavarotti recorded Lucia
opposite Sutherland at about this time in London and that recording is regarded by many as one of the classics. Here in San Francisco he is rather insensitive and rarely sings under fortissimo. In their duet it is Ms Sills who cares for the nuances. Nor is he much better in that respect in the finale. He sings magnificently but without subtlety. Not until Alma inamorata
does he show his class with some deeply felt pianissimo singing. Raymond Wolansky is rather wooden but at least acceptable as Enrico, while Simon Estes, here in his mid-thirties, and equipped with one of the finest bass voices of his generation, is an uncommonly warm and sonorous Raimondo. Neither of the comprimario tenors is very attractive while Gwendolyn Jones is a worthy Alisa.
Readers who want Pavarotti as Edgardo should turn to the Decca studio recording. Those who want Sills in a live recording of Lucia
will be better served by the Buenos Aires set, issued by West Hill Radio Archives and besides a far more stylish Edgardo. It also boasts some fine home-grown singers as Enrico and Raimondo. Only the Simon Estes Fan Club need consider this issue.