Beverly Sills: A Listening Guide through the Prime Years (I)

From my previous posts about soprano Beverly Sills, the reader has probably inferred that her all-too-brief prime can be pinpointed between September 27, 1966 (the night of her sensational Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare) to October 15, 1970 (the night of her first appearance as Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux.) During those four years, she gave performances that were about as good as any to be heard during the period, one during which Sutherland, Caballé and Scotto were at their zeniths as well.

One of the many ironies of the Sills career is that these prime years are scarcely represented by her studio recordings. Yes, we have the complete Giulio Cesare, hastily recorded by RCA after the production’s critical triumph, but, after that, Sills’ discography began to take a highly checkered course. Her recordings can nearly all be divided into two lots: the ones made for Westminster between 1968 and 1973, and the ones made for EMI between 1974 and 1978. Over a period of scarcely more than a decade, Sills managed to record fifteen complete operas (the Merry Widow “highlights” in English are all but complete) and six recital albums. The output is remarkable, and a sure sign of Sills’ bankability.

The Westminster recordings – all but the first recorded by EMI in London, using EMI studios and engineers – were released domestically by a pop label, ABC, and received pratically no circulation outside of the United States. That arrangement resulted in a legal tangle as to the recordings’ ownership that apparently continues to this day. The Sills Westminster recordings were last seen belonging to DG around the turn of the century. Probably nobody knows to whom they have devolved since, which is a shame as, in this day of exhaustive CD collections at very attractive prices, Sills’ earlier recordings, uneven as they are, are certainly ripe for one solid reissue that puts everything together once and for all.

Of Sills’ complete opera recordings, only Devereux, Manon and Lucia were made prior to the beginning of the end in October of 1970, and none of them show her to her best advantage.   The Manon is probably the best, although Sills celebrated characterization of the title role can be heard to better, fresher and more spontaneous advantage in a live performance from Buenos Aires with the same tenor made a few months before the studio recording. (The recording is to be heard on YouTube.)

As far as the Donizetti operas are concerned, the Lucia recording finds Sills off-form and tired-sounding, while she never had any business singing any of Roberto Devereux in the first place.

The lucky part – and we have the internet to thank for it – is that we do have a sizable collection of live recordings of Sills made between 1966 and 1970 that show what this talented but overly ambitious singer was like when she hadn’t yet become an institution who had ruined her voice. These live performances reveal a voice very different from that heard on even her earliest studio recordings. That Sills became famous on the basis of work like that contained in these excerpts is completely understandable. There is often miraculous singing to be heard here, all of it in repertory that suited her voice ever so much better than the bel canto roles her own brand of all-American hubris led her to attempt.   The Sills instrument is in pristine shape here, and reveals one of the great singers of her brief day, as opposed to America’s wobbly Queen of Opera.

What I propose to do here is to offer a selective critical roadmap through some of the quadrillions of bits and bytes that constitute the YouTube library, and to provide a tour of some of the finest Sills recordings to be found anywhere. I think it a fair argument that Sills live is generally preferable to Sills in the studio, as these recordings – all taken from those brief prime four years – show. All told, the tour takes about four hours, although it is all conveniently broken up into manageable chunks (except for a complete Lucia recording), so it need not all be taken in at once. On the other hand, singing this good can be addictive, so be forewarned: like potato chips, you won’t be satisfied with only one track.

 

Cleveland Concert, December 26, 1968

Louis Lane, conductor

A good place to begin is with the role that started it all: Cleopatra. At this 1968 concert in Cleveland, Sills performed three of Cleopatra’s arias in the first half, and a pair of Rossini arias in the second. The evening finds her in spectacular voice, although we will come to see that spectacular voice was the rule and not the exception during Sills’ few glory years.

Handel, Giulio Cesare

Non disperar

Sills opens the concert with Cleopatra’s first fast aria, which absolutely dazzles in its technical aplomb and brilliance of execution. It is stunning on a mechanical level, but the singing is never mechanical. Birdlike it most certainly is, but Sills here is less a standard canary and rather more some wonderful, unique and now extinct breed whose song always had soul behind it. Sills flies through the coloratura (and coach Roland Gagnon’s lavish ornaments in the da capo) with flawless intonation and sounds as though she were having a great time enjoying the awareness that she’s doing something no one else can.

Se pietà di me non senti

Given the brilliance of the Act I aria, Sills’ handling of Cleopatra’s great lament at the end of Act II – the moment that she felt made her a star – comes as something of a surprise. Avian coloratura sopranos often lack the means for the kind of sustained singing an aria like “Se pietà” requires. It’s not only a question of having the breath control to sustain the line, it’s also one of legato, not always a skill taught to coloratura sopranos. Sills’ formidable teacher Estelle Liebling equipped her with the means to do something slow and sustained as well as with those to sing a lot of notes in a short time span. Dynamics play a role as well: not only is Sills sustaining long lines effortlessly, she’s doing it for the most part in differing shades of pianissimo, which requires an even more developed method of breath support. Throughout these excerpts, we can hear how the Liebling technique was based upon the column of sound and support without which there can be no great singing. With Sills (even in her lesser years) there is never any question of the voice being improperly or insufficiently supported.

‘Hypnotic’ is a good word to describe Sills’ “Se pietà”, sung as it is at what is an almost excruciatingly slow tempo. Objectively, the aria is sung too slowly, yet Sills pulls it off with the same technical assurance that went with the act one aria, only here the technical near-perfection is used to completely different ends. There’s not even much ornamentation: for once Gagnon leaves the line alone and lets Sills and Handel make their points together.

Although the voice is by no means large, Sills shows that she can use it with extraordinary tragic dignity. I cannot stress too much Sills’ ability to sustain seemingly endless lines as part of her genius in her best years. With no disrespect to her dazzling coloratura flights, I am not at all convinced that Sills’ greatest distinction didn’t lie in her ability to sustain a line as she does in this aria.

If in “Non disperar” Sills was a a flighty Cleopatra, not unlike Shaw’s version of the character, here she is a fully fledged tragic queen, far more Shakespearean than Shavian. That both characters can come from the same human throat (and both be so magnificently sung) is no mean achievement.

Da tempeste il legno infranto

And so we come to one of my favorite Sills performances of all, the climactic “Da tempeste” from the third act of Giulio Cesare. I vividly recall my teenaged jaw dropping when I first heard the da capo of the aria on the studio recording. Two years after that recording was made, live and from Cleveland, Sills proves that the amazing feat of bravura she accomplished in the studio was no fluke and not tricked up for the microphone. She could actually sing the aria this brilliantly live, without apparent effort, and about as spectacularly as anyone has ever sung it. If anything, the tempo here is even faster than on the recording.

A feature of Sills’ virtuoso displays is the fearlessness of her attack. The ornamentation here is also one of Gagnon’s best efforts: yes, the da capo is almost completely recomposed, but that’s an accepted possibility for Handelian performance. It’s not just recomposed, though: it’s recomposed to show Sills off to her greatest possible advantage. She didn’t usually wear dresses so perfectly tailored to her considerable gifts. That said, one should also mention Sills’ excellent performance of the undecorated A section: not only can she sing Gagnon; she can sing Handel too.

If Sills’ Cleopatra was Shavian in act one and Shakespearean in act two, it becomes baroque in the finest sense in the third act. The Cleopatra of this“Da tempeste” is not only an eighteenth century operatic heroine rejoicing in her triumph over adversity, but also a baroque diva triumphant.   Sills doesn’t take us out of the character to bring down the house with cascade upon cascade of notes: she grasps that bravura is part of the character she is portraying. She gets Cleopatra instinctively: regardless of the fiddling with the score the New York City Opera edition involved, Sills produces a genuine baroque heroine the likes of which we may not have heard since.

Rossini, Guillaume Tell

Ils se sont eloignés…Sombre forêt

The second half of the Cleveland program was a harbinger of the unwise future that lay still a few years ahead of the Sills of this concert. To accompany the three Handel arias, she programmed a pair of Rossini arias, one from Guillaume Tell and one from Il barbiere di Siviglia.

By far the treasure is the Tell aria, and the hyperbole of the person who posted the aria on YouTube turns out not to be hyperbole at all. Although the aria is sung very slowly, Sills sustains the line with no apparent effort and the floated pianissimo A-flats written by Rossini are duly ethereal. No less ethereal are the pianissimo high D-flat and C and in the cadenza of her (and Gagnon’s) making. It is, indeed, ravishing.

That said, Sills is somewhat outside the music looking in, particularly in the lengthy recitative. Her French is excellent, if not flawless, but an overall sense of the piece eludes her. As natural and idiomatic as the Handel arias were, this foray into the bel canto repertory finds her on terrain that is less congenial to her musical instincts. One doesn’t sense that one is hearing Rossini, but, rather, a gorgeous abstract piece of singing. We never get the feeling that Sills knows exactly what she is singing about or who the character of Mathilde is. This coming from a singer who was able to create three very different portraits of Cleopatra in as many arias.

Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia

Una voce poco fà

The Cleveland concert concluded with Rosina’s “Una voce poco fà” – here sung several years before Sills undertook the role onstage. She selects the soprano key of F for the aria, a logical choice for a singer with a top half of the voice better than its lower half. The performance is fleet, brilliant almost at times, but performed with rather tame (for Gagnon) ornaments in a piece for which tradition allows all manner of decoration and rewriting. (Recall Rossini’s alleged response after hearing Patti sing the aria: “very nice…who wrote it?”.) As with the Tell aria, the feeling persists that Sills is on the outside of the music looking in; most surprising is the lack of character in the singing. Sills could perhaps be forgiven for not knowing who Mathilde is in Guillaume Tell. She must, however, have worked with Liebling on this aria at some point (is that why the ornaments don’t sound like Gagnon?), and, yet, she gives us little sense of Rosina’s personality and spirit. A sense of comedy is lacking as well. It’s still very good as far as the notes go, and the voice is far, far more solid than it would be when Sills started to sing Barbiere onstage, but it’s not really Rossini, nor is it much of an introduction to the character of Rosina.

 

A composer extremely well suited to the Sills voice and temperament in their prime is Mozart, and, yet, because Sills subsequently worked so hard to identify herself with the bel canto repertoire, we’ve lost sight of what an exquisite Mozartean she was.

Sills’ stage repertoire of Mozart heroines wasn’t large. Once past Donna Elvira in the leafiest of her salad days, she appeared as Donna Anna, Konstanze, the Countess (although she fails to mention having sung the role in both her autobiographies), Madame Herz and the Queen of the Night. All of these roles call for great personal dignity and musical poise, characteristics her singing conveyed effortlessly during the period under consideration here.

We can begin with the pons asinorum (or is it the bête noire?) of coloratura sopranos, the Queen of the Night. Sills kvetched at length about the role in both her autobiographies, although she actually sang a mere 17 performances of the role over a span of under four years and the last peformance didn’t even include the act two aria. Her first memoir, Bubbles, mentions that she sang only a single ‘perfect’ Queen of the Night in which she managed to hit all 5 high Fs and that the performance was broadcast from Tanglewood. The YouTube evidence, however, shows that she wasn’t in such flawless form that night; indeed, she misses all four Fs. For a perfect Queen of the Night (for there was at least one), we need to turn to the New York City Opera, probably in 1966, when she first sang the role in a new production a scant few weeks following the Cleopatra triumph. Sills’ newfound superstardom had already kicked in by the time of this performance, as, very unusually for a Queen of the Night, she gets applause when she is first disclosed by Beni Montresor’s scenery.

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte K. 620

New York City Opera, October, 1966

Julius Rudel, conductor

O zittre nicht” 

Sills shows herself here to be mistress of some very difficult music. She has the command required by the recitative, the serious pathos for the adagio, and then, in spades, the agility (and the F) for the concluding section. Indeed, the allegro is so stunning that it can eclipse the significant achievement that proceeds it. In a world in world in which most Queens of the Night are Zerlinas, Sills offers up a major rarity: a Queen of the Night who is a Donna Anna. Certainly, there have been Donna Annas with more substantial vocal endowments than Sills, but Sills captures the grand manner essential to that part and translates it to Mozart’s Masonic Singspiel.

(Anyone trying to make out the words should be made aware that the aria is performed in the Ruth & Thomas Martin translation, as was standard for the City Opera in those days. That Sills’ usually very fine diction is not at its cleanest here is by no means a tragedy.)

Der Hölle Rache

In the second act aria, Sills sounds like what she said she was not: a great Queen of the Night. This one belongs in the annals of great performances of the aria. I suspect that the aria is taken from the same NYCO performance as the just as impressive “O zittre nicht,” although I cannot be sure. She certainly hits all four Fs. She also manages the difficult triplets and murderously tricky final volleys of chromatic staccati. One can only praise such a Queen of the Night—and wonder why Sills should have disliked the role so.

Indeed, this poses the question of whether this performance is representative of Sills’ other 15 complete performances of the role or whether this were just a lucky night. Given how consistently good her singing is during her greatest years, one is tempted to suggest that her Queens of the Night were a lot better than she chose to admit they were. (On the other hand, the role seems to have flopped for her on the night of her Vienna State Opera debut, as she never sang there again.)

There may be other reasons behind Sills’ aversion to the role. Perhaps she wanted to avoid being typecast in the part, as has happened to many an even mediocre Queen. Or perhaps, following her taste of prima donna stardom as Cleopatra, she no longer wanted to be seconda donna in an ensemble opera. That then poses the interesting question of what sort of a Pamina she might have made had she continued in the Mozart Fach.

 

Mozart Concert

Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, July 6, 1968

 Erich Leinsdorf, conductor

0:00            “Ruhe Sanft” from Zaïde K. 344

7:32             “Exultate, Jubilate” K. 165

22:05            “Ah, se in ciel benigne stelle”, concert aria K. 538

29:30            “Martern aller Arten” from Die Entführung aus dem Serail K. 384

If Sills’ Tanglewood Queen of the Night wasn’t the perfect one she spoke of in Bubbles, she did have a great night at Tanglewood a couple years later, in the form of this Mozart concert given under Erich Leinsdorf’s baton. The program is fairly monstrous: Sills ‘ part of the concert accounts for 38 minutes of very difficult music.     Many sopranos would simply have programmed the “Exultate Jubilate” and left the rest of the evening to the orchestra. Sills, however, gives us “Ruhe Sanft” from Zaïde, the aforementioned motet, a later (if empty) concert aria, “Ah se in ciel benigne stelle”, and Konstanze’s Marternarie. One thing for which Sills could never be faulted was skimpy programming.

Perhaps the finest piece of singing of all that memorable night (if one were forced to choose) was be the opening Zaïde aria. The purity of line, the security of the legato, the shimmering silvery tone and the sustained pianissimo singing are again hypnotic in their beauty. One would be hard-pressed to recognize the Sills from her years of greatest fame, with her acidic and unsteady tone, in this master class in how to sing Mozart. Listening to a performance like this, one can ask oneself again whether the dazzling agility of Cleopatra’s “Da tempeste” (and the other arias in this Mozart concert) may actually be the thing Sills does second best. She may have been most at home in this kind of spianato singing. For sheer radiance, I’m not sure that any Sills document tops this performance of an aria that more often than not seems to go around once too often. There’s quite a bit of ornamentation in the various reprises, but it largely respects Mozart’s line and adds to the magic of the performance.

In the “Exultate, Jubilate”, Gagnon’s ornaments call attention to themselves in a way they didn’t in the Zaïde, but one cannot deny that Sills flies through them. There’s a series of triplets that is dazzling, as are the perfectly articulated trills. Throughout the motet, Sills doesn’t just trill to show off how well she can do it: she turns the trills into something grammatically inevitable.

What becomes obvious is that Sills had a firm grasp of Mozartean style. She catches the shape of a Mozart phrase instinctively, in the way that she got Handel and didn’t get Rossini in the Cleveland concert.   The cadenzas at the ends of the first and second movements are tossed off skillfully, and don’t overstay their welcome.

In the familiar “Alleluja” we perhaps don’t get much of a sense of religious jubilation (nor do we find Sills doing much with the Latin text elsewhere), but we do get to use the word ‘dazzling’ again to describe the passagework, everything in place and going at a fast gallop rather than the more usual allegro canter. Sills is taking risks with the tempo, but manages to be completely accurate and even thrilling. (A warning: she does something weird – can it be a mistake? – in the last few bars. It’s not terrible-weird, but be prepared.)

The concert aria “Ah se in ciel benigne stelle” is far from being one of Mozart’s best display pieces, but Sills’ performance of it is exemplary.   There is just less opportunity for magic as there is in the other music on the program. Still, there can be no doubt that we are listening to a born Mozart singer with an absolutely first-rate florid technique and understanding of the composer’s music.

As for the Marternarie – the only music on the program that Sills had sung onstage – the performance is stunning, fearless, and altogether marvelous. Konstanze’s defiance is evident in Sills’ handling of the text: this is a dramatic performance, but also a highly musical one. (That’s not a combination of which Sills was always able to see the virtues.) The tone of defiance is not only in the words: the way in which Sills attacks this fiendishly difficult music without flinching communicates musically what the text tells us. The whole of the aria’s wide range is there, with the low Bs and high Ds all taken handily. Note an extraordinarily long breath in the fourth section of the aria, and, maybe as the best indicator of Sills’ virtuosity and musicality, the way in which she stays perfectly in sync with the orchestral strings in the final velocissimo passage. (There’s another surprise at the end as well, one I rather fancy.)

Listening to this performance, one comes to wonder whether there is a better performance of the Marternarie anywhere. (Sills recorded the aria in the studio as well. While that performance is formidable, this one is amazing.) The whole concert is splendid, however, and shows what a graceful, musical and noble Mozartean Sills was. One cannot but regret that she threw Mozart over completely when she turned to the bel canto Fach. There were plenty of unexplored frontiers to explore. Sills might have done something remarkable with, for example, Fiordiligi, and, as suggested above, Pamina. With her coloratura technique, she might even have given musical interest to roles like Giunia in Lucio Silla or Aspasia in Mitridate. One can also regret not having heard her in Mozart’s two opera seria masterpieces, although I am perhaps making a controversial suggestion in opining that the roles that would have suited her best in those operas would have been Sesto in La clemenza di Tito and Ilia in Idomeneo, whose indescribably lovely music would have been perfect for the Sills of the radiant Zaïde aria.

 

Gounod: Faust

New York City Opera, October 17, 1968

Julius Rudel, conductor

Ballade du Roi de Thulé & Jewel Song

French opera has long been considered one of Sills’ strongest suits. She will always be particularly associated with the title role in Massenet’s Manon, and the three heroines in Les contes d’Hoffmann also played a major role in her career. She appeared as Philine in Mignon in her earliest City Opera days (question: how did she escape critical notice in the role? or did she sound appreciably different then than she did when she made it big?). She sang her first Marguerite in Faust in the City Opera’s last season at the City Center, and then took part in a new production of the opera done in 1968 at the State Theater. That production was the only time Sills worked with the City Opera’s semi-resident enfant terrible, Frank Corsaro.

This recording of Marguerite’s big solos comes from that production, and does indeed demonstrate Sills’ affinity for French music. She handles the text more sensitively than she does the Italian in the excerpts above, and she gives a wonderfully fresh performance of music that I usually find tired and dull.   Sills is lovely as she conveys the introspection of the Thulé ballad, coloring it in variegated shades of piano. She manages the difficult feat of convincing us that Marguerite is singing to herself and also contrives to conveys that the asides during which Marguerite interrupts her ballad are, indeed, asides.

As for the Jewel Song itself, the first and most obvious comment is that the trills are superb. There is excitement and elation aplenty as Marguerite contemplates her newfound finery. Sills captures the mood, as well as the contrast of mood with the Roi de Thulé solo, pulling the ten-minute scena’s two parts together. Overall, it’s just a plain old terrific performance.

There are audible testaments to the Sills magic: the way in which she holds the audience quiet and attentive at the end of the Roi de Thulé and the big spontaneous ovation when she’s done with the Jewel Song. That’s not [merely] an audience responding positively to a new star, it’s an audience responding to a wonderful performance and getting caught up in the moment. It’s not dutiful applause: it’s the applause of an audience that has been made to listen.

I’ve been told that I’m overly persnickety about such matters, but, while praising Sills’ sensitivity to the French language, some idiosyncracies in her pronunciation do have to be acknowledged. A YouTube comment (for which the poster was subjected to a virtual beatdown) observes that she has trouble with the vowel E, particularly at the end of words. To choose the most frequent word in the Jewel Song, she sings “belle” as though it were /belluh/ instead of /belleuh/. Personally, I find her interchanging of French’s uniquely tricky nasal vowels to be more of a problem: /an/ comes out as /on/ more often than not, just as /en/ comes out /un/, and /ain/ turns out like what /en/ ought to be. This isn’t just nit-picking: it’s something that grates on francophone ears rather harshly, although I think I may have an explanation for the phenomenon. An integral part of Sills’ technique (it can’t merely be a bad habit) was the systematic darkening of vowels. I suspect it was part of Liebling’s method and a means of avoiding singing on dangerous open vowels, particularly in the upper range. Whereas most coloraturas vocalize on /ah/ (with adjustments at the top of the stave), Sills’ vowel of choice is a good deal closer to /o/, even in the middle range. (This can be heard most especially at the end of downward runs.) This idiosyncrasy, which obviously worked given Sills’ speed and accuracy of execution, spilled over, I think, into her French pronunciation. She’s not singing the wrong nasal vowels: her technique naturally darkens all vowels, so that when she tries to sing /an/ it naturally comes out /on/. Not that that makes it right, of course.

Final Trio with Michele Molese and Norman Treigle

Marguerite is by no means a bird role, even if a degree of agility is required for the Jewel Song. It calls for a full-fledged lyric soprano capable of sustaining the big dramatic moments in the Church Scene and Final Trio. Given how strongly I criticize Sills for having attempted repertoire too dramatic for her voice, it should be pointed out that she did possess more voice than the average coloratura soprano, and that, under some circumstances, it could handle pressure. Does she perhaps give a little too much in the Final Trio from Faust? I’m not sure that she’s singing on vocal capital here, but she’s coming close. Still, if she is giving more than she should, the trio is brief, the music is congenial, and the only thing she’s trying to do that she shouldn’t is sing loud at the top of her range. That’s nothing like the misuse to which she would subject the voice later on.

The results – with New York City Opera stalwarts Michele Molese and Normal Treigle – certainly are exciting. I think the excerpt makes it clear that Sills is a true lyric soprano (rather than a soprano leggero or lirico-leggero), although it also makes it clear that Marguerite is about as heavy a role as Sills ought to have attempted.

I may be wrong, but I think that Sills’ work with Frank Corsaro may be responsible for some of the freshness of her approach to Marguerite. No disrespect to Tito Capobianco, but Sills the artist would likely have benefitted from working with a variety of directors rather than the same one over and over. (It’s an argument that can be made about Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge as well.) Capobianco was, of course, an important part of what was to become the Sills brand. The question is whether an opera singer is in need of a brand in the first place.

There’s even more to come in a future post, including a complete early performance of Lucia.  Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

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