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Beverly Sills (soprano)
Beverly Sills and Friends
rec. 1959-1972, ADD
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6304 [73:13 + 67:05]

First released in 2006, this compilation of Sills’ best collaborative work, now re-issued by Presto, forms the ideal introduction to her art and spirit. The only caveat is that admirers need first to check their own collections against the tracklist below to ensure that in purchasing it they are not duplicating items already on their shelves, as everything with the exception of the six items performed with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center had previously been made available, either in complete opera sets or on recital albums. The opera recordings were all derived from productions mounted by the New York City Opera in its ‘Golden Era’ from the late 60’s through the 70’s, and even though the recording sessions themselves often featured different artists from the ensembles who had performed the operas on stage, the recordings are palpably pervaded by what Sills herself called “the camaraderie and cohesion of a performance”.

The roster of famous names here (see below) is impressive, from established operatic stars such as Eileen Farrell, Shirley Verrett, Carlo Bergonzi and Stuart Burrows to virtuoso instrumentalists like Gervase de Peyer but despite the strength of the various ensembles, the focus is firmly on Sills.

The first disc contains the meat of this testament to Sills’ supremacy in certain bel canto repertoire, especially Donizetti’s ‘Three Queens’. In my survey of Massenet’s Manon I praise the brittle brilliance of her portrayal, especially her ease in alt, even if other sopranos embody a warmer, more feminine Manon. The excerpts from Lucia di Lammermoor feature elegant, extensive contributions from Bergonzi; they make a fairly lightweight duo but are impeccable stylists. The best things here are the arias from Anna Bolena where in the slow, mournful music Sills displays her gift for maintaining legato in the cantilena passages and, incidentally, displaying some heft in her lower register. Her voice is aptly complemented by Verrett’s velvety tones and both artists inject huge passion into their singing, generating real thrills at climactic points. The other partnership – or rather confrontation - which provokes enormous interest is that of Sills with Eileen Farrell, who manages to wrap her enormous voice around Donizetti’s ornamented lines without falling off. Sills’ cursing of Elisabetta as a “vil bastarda” and the queen’s reaction makes for riveting theatre.

Apart from the glories of Sills’ singing, however, there are other incidental beauties such as – to take one example at random – the lilt and delicacy of Rudel’s direction of the orchestral introduction to Offenbach’s deathless Baracarolle. The extracts from the Westminster recording showcase Sills, Burrows and Treigle all in splendid form; I remarked in a previous review that Sills was “at her best, despatching trills and roulades with consummate ease and with very little shrillness creeping into her voice“.

The extracts from The Ballad of Baby Doe are valuable not just for the charm of its quintessentially American idiom but for allowing us to hear how sweet, fresh and flexible Sills’ voice was in 1959, when she had just turned thirty, complemented by the attractively grainy warmth of Walter Cassel’s baritone and Frances Bible’s rich, steady mezzo.

Adam’s variations on the French ditty “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman” (better known in English as “Twinkle, twinkle little star”) are the perfect vehicle for Sills’ coloratura gifts - ridiculous and thoroughly enjoyable. Schubert’s extended Lied “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” is really more a cantata than a mere song and again, ideally suited to Sills’ vocal layout. Apart from her undoubted vocal dexterity, I am struck by her linguistic prowess; she might sometimes have projected a bubbly, loveable, even flippant persona but beneath the insouciance was a very serious, dedicated professional who took pains to ensure that her French, German and Italian were entirely idiomatic, allied to equally meticulous musicianship. The purity of her soprano is wonderfully complemented by the plaintive sonority of de Peyer’s clarinet.

The Handel number is a middle-period composition which sounds like run-of-the-mill Bach, beautifully sung in a manner which demonstrates Sills’ stylistic versatility but cannot do much to lift the conventionality of the musical matter. Much more uplifting is the aria from Arne’s opera, whereby Sills demonstrates why she, while not having so large a voice, was the coloratura soprano to give Sutherland a run for her money in the baroque repertoire. The Caldara song is another showpiece which is notable more for its opportunities for display than its intrinsic musicality and I prefer the pictorial faux-naïveté of Bishop’s “Lo, here the gentle lark”, where the soprano mimics trilling bird song. The recital concludes with a creamy, Viennese aria in languorous three-quarter time which ideally suits the sensuous quality of Sills’ voice.

If you do not already possess the opera recordings from which these extracts are taken, this is the ideal compendium to demonstrate the soaring brilliance of Sills’ vocalism. The concert items simply supplement perfection.

Ralph Moore

CD 1:
Massenet: Manon
1. Act 3. Scene 1. Je marche sur tous les chemins [2:51]
2. Act 3. Scene 1. Gavotte. Obéissons, quand leur voix appelle [3:54]
3. Act 4. Un mot, s'il vous plaît, Chevalier [3:58]
rec. July 1970, All Saints’ Church, Tooting, London
Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
4. Part I. No. 4. Duet: Sulla tomba che rinserra [10:53]
5. Part II. Act 1. Sextet with Chorus: Chi mi frena in tal momento?/Chi raffrena il mio furore? [3:55]
rec. August 1970, EMI Studios, London
Bellini: I puritani
6. Part 1. Scene 2. Scene and Duet: O amato zio - Sai com'arde [6:10]
7. Part 1. Scene 2. Scene and Duet: Chi mosse a' miei desir il genitor? [3:34]
8. Part 1. Scene 2. Scene and Duet: Odi... Qual suon si desta? [4:08]
rec. August 1973, EMI Studios, London
Donizetti: Anna Bolena
9. Act 2. Scene 1. No. 11. Scene and Duet: Dio, che mi vedi in core [7:13]
10. Act 2. Scene 1. No. 11. Scene and Duet: Sul suo capo aggravi un Dio [3:32]
11. Act 2. Scene 1. No. 11. Scene and Duet: Dal mio cor punita io sono [2:55]
12. Act 2. Scene 1. No. 11. Scene and Duet: Va', infelice, e teco reca [3:17]
rec. August 1972, EMI Studios, London
Donizetti: Roberto Devereux
13. Act 1. Scene 1: Nunzio son del Parlamento [5:52]
Rec.June 1969, EMI Studios, London
Donizetti: Maria Stuarda
14. Act 2. No. 6. Finale: Deh! l'accogli! [8:05]
15. Act 2. No. 6. Finale: Va', preparati, furente [2:59]
rec. June 1971, The Concert Auditorium, Fairfield Hall, London
Offenbach: Les contes d'Hoffmann
1. Act 3. Barcarolle: Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour [4:15]
2. Act 3. Scene: Cher ange! [2:05]
3. Act 3. Duet: Malheureux, tu ne comprends donc pas [6:02]
rec. July & August 1972, EMI Studios, London
Moore: The Ballad of Baby Doe
4. Act 1. Scene 2: Willow, where we met together (Willow Song) [3:02]
5. Act 1. Scene 2: Oh, Mr. Tabor! [1:14]
6. Act 1. Scene 2.: Warm as the autumn light [4:09]
rec. June 1959, New York City Opera
Adam: Le Toréador
7. Act 1. Aria. Ah! vous dirai-je, maman [6:19]
8. Der Hirt auf dem Felsen ("Wenn auf dem höchsten Fels ich steh'"), for voice, clarinet (or cello) & piano, D. 965 (Op. posth. 129) [11:45]
9. Meine Seele hört im Sehen (German Aria No.6), hymn for soprano & continuo, HWV 207 [7:04]
Arne: Artaxerxes
10. Act 3. Scena 3. Aria. The soldier tir'd of war's alarms [3:31]
11. Cantata ‘La rosa’ [7:15]
12. Lo, here the gentle lark [5:18]
rec. March 1972, Rutgers Presbyterian Church, New York
Lehár: Der Zarewitsch
13. Act 1. Aria: Einer wird kommen [5:06]
May 1971, Fairfield Hall, Croydon

Orchestras & conductors:
New York City Opera Orchestra/Emerson Buckley; London Philharmonic Orchestra/Aldo Ceccato; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras; New Philharmonia Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra & London Symphony Orchestra/Julius Rudel; London Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Schippers.

Leslie Parnas (cello); Gervase de Peyer (clarinet); Paula Robison (flute); Charles Treger (violin); Charles Wadsworth (piano); Eileen Farrell (soprano); Frances Bible (mezzo-soprano); Patricia Kern (mezzo-soprano); Susanne Marsee (mezzo-soprano); Shirley Verrett (mezzo-soprano); Beverly Wolff (mezzo-soprano)Carlo Bergonzi (tenor); Stuart Burrows (tenor); Nico Castel (tenor); Adolfo Dallapozza (tenor); Nicolai Gedda (tenor); Piero Cappuccilli (baritone); Walter Cassel (baritone); Justino Díaz (baritone); Christian Du Plessis (baritone); Louis Quilico (baritone); Gérard Souzay (baritone); Michel Trempont (baritone); Norman Treigle (bass-baritone); Paul Plishka (bass) et al.

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