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

In a previous post, I led the reader through a series of recordings of Beverly Sills, taken from the prime years of her career, 1966 through 1970.  Those selections focused mostly on Mozart and Handel, with small side trips into Rossini and Gounod.  This, the second part of the article, takes the reader/listener from Meyerbeer to Richard Strauss to Donizetti (a complete performance of Lucia di Lammermoor), then back to Handel before winding up with something of a surprise.

 

Meyerbeer: Les Huguenots

O beau pays…A ce mot seul s’anime

Carnegie Hall, May 14, 1969

One of my favorite Sills documents of all is her performance of Marguerite de Valois’ aria from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. It’s taken from a 1969 concert performance of the opera at Carnegie Hall that also featured Tony Poncet and Angeles Gulin (both in their New York debuts, if I’m not mistaken.) I can’t but imagine that the latter two felt most frustrated when Sills walked out at the beginning of the second act and blew the roof off the place with twelve minutes of absolutely spectacular singing.

She creates the necessary mood of repose in the first section of the aria, ornamenting the reprise copiously and concluding it with an elaborate cadenza ascending to a lovely and effortless top D. She then attacks what a friend of mine used to call the “Moon Maiden Trio” with that near-ferocity that lends such a brilliant edge to her virtuoso displays, caps that with a brilliant cadenza, a further D, and then throws herself into a spectacular dash through the cabaletta. The cadenza there, accompanied by a not very traditional flute, is (as it should be) more elaborate than the ones that preceded it, and is of course capped by a full-voice D that tells the audience that now is the time to go crazy. (It is an indicator of the Sills magic that she could keep the audience from applauding at the conclusion of the first section of the aria. She was clearly holding Carnegie Hall spellbound that memorable evening.)

Gagnon’s ornaments don’t seem overly excessive here, but, then, the Queen’s aria is a showpiece and not much else. The use of a flute in the cabaletta’s cadenza isn’t entirely his idea, either: Sills’ teacher, Estelle Liebling, in her Book of Coloratura Cadenzas, includes a cadenza with flute for this aria. On the other hand, I wonder what Liebling would have had to say to Sills’ total disregard for her rule that you should always save your highest note for the end of the aria

Sills’ singing here truly does qualify as Golden Age. Readers may be aware of the endlessly disputed Mapleson cylinder of [either Suzanne Adams or] Melba in the cabaletta to the Queen’s aria, in which the music is dashed off with spectacular ease and virtuosity in true Golden Age fashion. Sills at Carnegie Hall that night is the equal of that historic performance (whosever it was.)

Yes, she was that good.

 

Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos (1912 version)

Großmächtige Prinzessin

Boston Symphony, January 7, 1969

Erich Leinsdorf, conductor

This justifiably famous performance of the original 1912 version of Zerbinetta’s aria from Ariadne auf Naxos achieved some currency before the days of YouTube. It was included on a pirate LP of early Sills material and has appeared on CD as well. I’m including it here because it’s an essential Sills-in-her-prime document that shows her in music that fits her like a glove. Zerbinetta (in the 1916 version) and Strauss in general (Sophie and Daphne; not the Marschallin) are things she should have continued to sing.

Much has been made of the fact that Sills omits the two high F-sharps Strauss wrote into this version of the aria. By her own admission, she didn’t have the note (“I barely had an F” she said in an interview), and, if you don’t have a note, the only solution is to leave it out. It doesn’t matter too terribly much here, finally, as Sills fearlessly scales (in both senses of the word) the heights, repeatedly and ultimately climactically up to an effortless high E. Would the performance have rated a perfect 10 with the F-sharps (and the one staccato E she omits right before the end)? Very probably. I suppose some deductions need to be made in good faith if the Sills performance is to be compared to the few other singers who’ve attempted the first version of the aria, but I’d still give her a 9.7. There is nothing whatsoever with which to quibble in the rest of the performance.

I’d also suggest that Strauss would have been delighted with this Zerbinetta. He was always willing to tailor roles to suit singers, especially when he came to realize that his demands on the human voice might have been excessive. I’m sure he meant for the F-sharps to be sung; he also realized himself that the note was beyond the compass of most coloratura sopranos and, when he revised the aria in 1916, himself shifted most of it (including the F-sharps) down a whole tone.

 

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor (complete opera)

with Michele Molese (Edgardo), Dominic Cossa (Enrico) and Robert Hale (Raimondo)

New York City Opera

October 12, 1969

Charles Wendelken-Wilson, conductor

And, so, into the fray with Sills first venture into the bel canto repertoire, her celebrated interpretation of Lucia, an early complete performance of which is to be heard on YouTube. She first sang the role in Fort Worth in 1968 (see below) but truly established herself in the role in the New York City Opera production (a Capobianco venture) the following year. In Sills’ second volume of memoirs, Beverly, she mentions some pretty loopy thinking on Capobianco’s part about the opera (that the true villain of the piece is Raimondo, for example), and a determination to operate outside the established Italian tradition, beginning with the choice to perform the opera absolutely uncut.

It is as if Sills and her gang ripped out Liebling’s supplement to the Schirmer score about the traditions that have developed around the opera and attempted to start from zero. I used the expression ‘sui generis American’ in a previous post on Sills; this Lucia production was the first time that this aesthetic became part and parcel of a Sills performance.

She’d have done better to have worked a with a good Italian coach or conductor. This group of Americans (and their Argentinian director) put together a performance that is indeed very strange in places. Perhaps the idea was to put on a Lucia that differed from the production playing across the plaza with its rotation of Sutherland, Scotto, Moffo and Peters. If that was the goal, they succeeded.

The City Opera also awarded the company’s de facto prima donna an all-out prima donna vehicle. Yes, Manon gave Sills a star part, but Manon isn’t quite the kind of star for the evening that Lucia is. Indeed, Lucia may well be the most privileged of prima donna roles in the repertory. That said, the performance still remains an ensemble effort: Molese, Cossa and Hale all make an impression and seem to be working along with soprano and conductor at ‘rediscovering’ the opera.

At its finest – and there is a lot of the performance at its finest – this Lucia is a performance that definitely deserves to be heard. Sills’ performance may have its excesses and lapses of taste, but it is (at this point in her career) a beautifully conceived characterization offering some of her loveliest singing anywhere. When she connects with Lucia, she truly does connect and with wonderful results. She just doesn’t connect all the time, and is, in quite a few places, led astray, either by Gagnon, Capobianco, conductor Wendelken-Wilson, or her own lack of understanding of the Donizettiean melos.

One should mention that this live performance, which took place a year before Sills’ studio recording, is preferable in every way to the latter. The studio recording fails to communicate the magic that is to be found in this live Lucia. I must confess a bias for live performances in general, but the recordings we are considering here do make me wonder whether Sills might be one of those singers who are far better heard live than in the studio.

18:05            “Ancor non giunse…Regnava nel silenzo…Quando rapito in estasi

Much the least satisfying part of Sills Lucia is, for my ears, the cavatina. I find the ornaments intrusive and cavalier in their rewriting of Donizetti’s line and the way in which they constantly push the voice upwards so as to be more ‘dramatic’. Sills did have a remarkable top, and she manages to sing the rewritten notes, but to what avail? We have here, I think, the first evidence of the attitude that would plague Sills as she progressed through the Donizetti repertory: not trusting the composer. The feeling you get listening to Lucia’s cavatina is that Sills felt that, while Donizetti had some good ideas, they need her and her team to be put across fully.

Sills knows that she’s telling a ghost story, but she wants to tell her version of it, not Donizetti’s. She applies what she takes for drama to the music rather than finding the drama within Donizetti’s lines, as generations of great Lucias before her managed to do.

The recitative is largely free of such exaggerations, although there is one definite indicator of the kind of performance this is to be: Sills pronounces “Ravenswood” as an American would pronounce it in English (/rayvenswud/ rather than the farily standard Italianized /rahvensvood/.) I have no doubt that she thought that terribly clever.

The biggest problems come in the primo tempo of the aria. In it, she ‘improves’ the narrative by pushing the line up too far at the end of the first verse and loses the line again at one point in the second verse. We get the first instance of one of her most hateful habits – plunging into naked chest voice for dramatic effect – at “sangue roseggiò”, although, to her credit, she does give the impression that the trills are there to depict Lucia’s terror. The cadenza, not surprisingly already, pushes her up too far in her range. If all of this adds up to a Lucia, it’s not the one Donizetti wrote.

She simmers down for the cabaletta, which is sung fleetly and well, the ornaments sometimes unusual but still ornaments rather than a rewriting of the line. She does, however, push too hard on an interpolated high D in the coda as well as the climactic penultimate D. As we’ve seen, unpleasant high notes were rare at this point in Sills’ career. Perhaps she wasn’t fully warmed up by this point, or perhaps her acuti are suffering temporarily from her attempts to be dramatic. She nonetheless gets a huge ovation for the aria, although it’s not being overly cynical to question whether some of the applause might already be a response to Sills the star rather than to Sills the musician. (It is, of course, equally possible that there was stage action that excited the audience so. Not being able to judge that is always a drawback of sound-only recordings.)

If you liked Sills’ performance of “Regnava nel silenzio”, you will no doubt like what follows. If not, let me assure you that the performance improves considerably with Edgardo’s entrance.

31:07            “Lucia, perdona…Sulla tomba che rinserra…Veranno a te

Sills is in lovely, expressive form throughout the duet, but really outdoes herself in her tracing of “Veranno a te” (at 39:11). Given a simple melodic line to spin, Sills does meltingly lovely things. The feeling is all there too: she sounds every inch a character afflicted with depression taking leave of a lover and sole source of comfort. It’s a truly magical moment.

A bit later on, Sills and Molese indulge harmlessly enough in the usually omitted cadenza that’s supposed to take Edgardo to a high E-flat. They manage to sing it by exchanging parts, although singing in 10ths doesn’t sound like the singing in 6ths that Donizetti intended. Still, it’s interesting to hear the cadenza for a change. For obvious reasons, the cadenza had long been eliminated by the Italian tradition; it’s one more example of how the New York City Opera bel canto revival (as led by Sills) chose to ignore that tradition. On the other hand, Molese gets away with an extra B-flat on “ne stringi il ciel” which is an old Italian trick. That leads one to conclude that Molese was more interseted in becoming a great Italian tenor than Sills was in becoming a great Italian soprano.

49:24            “Il pallor funesto, orrendo…Soffriva nel pianto…Tu che vedi il pianto mio

The duet with Enrico continues to illustrate these points. When she can spin out a line (“Soffriva nel pianto”) the canto can be both bel and infinitely expressive. When she wants to get dramatic, she works against her best interests. An example I often cite is the interpolated high C on “Ah, il core mi balzò” (53:00): not trusting Donizetti’s written note, she tosses in something that fits not at all into the rest of the phrase, not so much as to show off her top C but as to show off how ‘dramatic’ she can be by exploiting the best part of her voice. In the duet’s cabaletta (at 59:53), however, she does manage to be dramatic within her means while keeping to Donizetti’s lines, and the results are deeply satisfying. We feel for this Lucia as she gets backed into a corner, and, for a while, Sills seems to grasp that she doesn’t have to sing badly to convey the dramatic situation.

In the ensuing recitative with Raimondo, Sills is indeed eloquent, and, in his aria, Robert Hale is very much worth hearing for the abundant ornamentation he adds. It’s decidedly surprising, but it also proves that Samuel Ramey didn’t hold the City Opera monopoly on bass agility.

1:19:02        “Chi mi frena in tal momento” (Sextet)

The challenge of the sextet for a smaller-voiced Lucia is that it requires her to dominate a large and rather noisy ensemble. Sills rises to the challenge handily, producing sufficient volume without any loss of quality of voice. She doesn’t push, she goes with Donizetti instead of against him, and everything works out just fine as a result, including a big D-flat at the end to bring down the house.

Unfortunately she ruins the rest of the Act II finale after Molese’s non-traditional extra high notes on “son tue ciffre?”. At 1:25:40, Lucia is supposed to answer “si”, for which Donizetti provided a note, allowing a good Lucia the chance to encapsulate all her conflicting feelings with just that one spot of sung tone.

Sills, alas, uses the moment as an opening for the most unmusical of her later mannerisms. Rather than keeping to the written note and meeting its musical challenge, she decides to get ‘dramatic’ again and speaks the word. But she doesn’t just speak it: she kind of grunts it. It’s a very ugly sound that fits not at all into what Donizetti is trying to do at this point in his music. (Sills would subsequently rely on this device more and more; it’s one of the many blots on her attempt at Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux.)

As for the stretta to the Act II finale (which is nice to hear uncut for a change), Sills again produces ample tone to be heard over the ensemble. She’s not the loudest of Lucias, but she has the sense not to force, and wraps it up with a good top D.

1:48:13            “Il dolce suonoArdon gl’incensiSpargi d’amaro pianto” (Mad Scene)

And so to the moment people have been waiting for all evening long: the Mad Scene. Fear not: I’m not going to tear Sills to shreds. Indeed, it may be the best part of her performance.

She starts out both gorgeously and expressively, singing quietly in the middle of her range, concentrating on the text, audibly unhinged and moving in her own fog of fond recollection. Then, at “il fantasma” she switches to her vulgar shouting mode, further increasing the ‘drama’ of the moment with a cadenza up to high C on “ne separa”. That irritating moment past, Sills calms down, and gets right back on point, again communicating Lucia’s madness through Donizetti’s music. Never mind some untraditional pushing of the line upward and listen to the beautifully sustained “e non si dice” right before the start of the aria proper.

She begins the latter in the same mode. “Alfin son tua” is worthy of the record books, the pianissimo tone beautifully sustained, the coloratura incorporated as part of the line, all of it infused with infinte feeling and pathos. This is work of a very great artist. She is even more more intensely eloquent at “del ciel clemente”.

That brings us to the cadenza, here an Italian tradition rethought by Americans. There is no reason why the overwhelming majority of Lucias should choose to sing the same cadenza (as has been the case), so the incorporation of some variety is welcome indeed. One could argue that Sills and Gagnon incorporate too much variety, although there are sufficient shreds and patches of the traditional cadenza to keep the listener orientated. The only real fault with the cadenza is that you think it’s going to end twice before it actually does. There is certainly no quibbling with the virtuoso display it affords Sills, nor with the virtuosic display she offers. One might question whether or not all the coloratura suggests and deepens our experience of Lucia’s madness, but I suppose that is a question one can ask of most Lucias. The stage action may have come into play here as well, of course.

A small warning: in order to play every single bar of the score, as well as to avoid extended applause with the curtain up (and Lucia lying in the traditional heap on the stage) Wilson does something weird at the very end of the cadenza. Fear not: we still get the E-flat.

Sills is back on her best expressive form during the tempo di mezzo, but be prepared for something else weird before “Spargi d’amaro pianto”. While the something weird makes it possible to play every possible note of the score, it strikes me as detrimental to the dramatic progress of the Mad Scene. Others may disagree, champion completeness, or, of course, not care.

As for the cabaletta (when we get to it), Sills does much more with the words than most Lucias do at this point in the evening, and accomplishes the feat of communicating that she’s singing to Edgardo. In the reprise, the ornamenation can politely be termed ‘lavish’ but it generally doesn’t mar Donizetti’s line. Sills knocks out a properly climactic E-flat, and the house goes bananas, especially when she steps in front of the curtain to take her solo bows for the evening. (In the Capobianco production, this time in accordance with tradition, Lucia took her curtain call after the Mad Scene, and not at the end of the opera.) The audience’s applause and the number times Sills audibly steps before the curtain indicate that something extraordinary was happening onstage during the Mad Scene, although, at this point in Sills’ career, there is no need to invoke her ‘acting’ as an apologia for inconsistent singing. It’s a wonderful Mad Scene in purely musical terms, and probably the fleeting pinnacle of Sills’ involvement with bel canto.

Some may find my reservations about Sills’ Lucia (and about “Regnava nel silenzio” in particular) to be overly harsh, and perhaps they are. I’ll admit that some of them are a reaction to the first signs of what would go wrong a year following this lovely complete Lucia. While there is a very great deal to be enjoyed about the performance, it also can be reckoned the beginning of the end. Whereas this Lucia could have laid the groundwork for Linda di Chamounix or Rosamonda d’Inghilterra (if Sills were to have insited on further Donizetti roles), it instead was used to lay the groundwork for the Roberto Devereux that would ruin her voice a scant year following the performance we’ve just considered.

 

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor

Mad Scene

Fort Worth

April 5, 1968

Rudolf Kruger, conductor

As a footnote to the NYCO performance, Sills’ first performance of Lucia the year before in Fort Worth has survived, allowing us to sample her first thoughts on the Mad Scene. As might be predicted, the City Opera performance is more deeply felt, and shows her having grown into the role, although most of the essentials are present in Fort Worth. The cadenza is shorter, but dazzlingly sung, and the E-flat is stunning. The opera was performed with the traditional cuts, so Sills moves directly along to “Spargi d’amaro pianto” following the cadenza. The ornaments are more elaborate than what was heard in New York, and are, to my ears, a bit much. There’s another stunning E-flat at the end. As a piece of vocalism, it is remarkable, but Sills would capture Lucia far more movingly a year later.

Very interestingly, there is markedly less applause than in New York. Make of that what you will.

 

Handel: Semele

“Myself I Shall Adore”

Cleveland

December 28, 1967

Robert Shaw, conductor

After the Donizetti, consider Sills again in Handel, a composer with whom she truly did feel an affinity. Other than Cleopatra and a few performances of Ginevra in Ariodante, she never sang another of Handel’s operatic heroines, but she did give a scant four performance of Handel’s ‘bawdy oratorio’ Semele, the first under Robert Shaw in 1967. The heroine’s big display piece is “Myself I Shall Adore,” something of a joke in an of itself – and interesting words to put in the mouth of a prima donna, all the more as they are repeated so many times in the course of the aria.

Sills’ performance justifies some self-love. It is, in a word, astounding. The reams upon reams of ornamentation work very well in the context of an aria that repeats itself as much as this one; all those notes can be seen as part of the joke. There can be no second thoughts about the suitability of the music for the voice or of the singer for the music. Sills is a perfect fit for Semele, not least of all because she manages to sing all of Gagnon’s ornaments without the slightest show of effort. She just sets off the fireworks with complete nonchalance, as though they were the easiest things in the world. (They aren’t.) And, yet, the facility doesn’t detract from the brilliance, which isn’t always an easy balance to strike – and the brilliance only goes to enhance the dramatic situation.

The reason I’ve included another Handel aria following the complete Lucia was to illustrate how much more at home Sills sounds in this type of music. I don’t mean to say that Sills was a bad Lucia…but she was a magnificent Semele. Had she stuck to the repertoire that suited her, she would have been a magnifcent Semele for many years to follow.

 

Schubert: Ave Maria (in 8:29!)

Philharmonic Hall Recital

February First, 1970

Charles Wadsworth, piano

In a comment about the 18th century soprano Elizabeth Billington, no less a personage than George III stated that “an essential service to the court” could be done by Lord Carmarthen “if he can get her to sing pathetick [sic] songs, and not to over-grace them.” The comment reminds me very much of Sills, who, despite the fantastic brilliance of things like the Huguenots and Semele arias we’ve considered, might be most treasurable as a singer when spinning out simple spianato lines.

Consider “Se pietà” from Giulio Cesare, or “Veranno a te” and “Alfin son tua” from Lucia, or, as a final exhibit, this performance of the Schubert “Ave Maria” in its original German three-verse incarnation. The timing of the song – eight and a half minutes – suggests a tempo too slow for the music’s own good (let alone for the good of the singer’s breath control), but Sills pulls the feat off. The voice is at its pristine loveliest, and, without all those notes to hide behind, Sills laid bare emerges as perhaps a better musician.

It’s a remarkable document, like the other ones I’ve considered in this article, and we are fortunate to have it to help us understand what Sills in her prime was all about: this is a singer about whom an audience would get excited. There is indeed something sensational to the Sills of the her brief glory period, in both the coloratura and lyric sides of her vocal personality. Although a choice need not be made, I leave it to the reader to decide whether the endlessly spun silvery lines of the “Ave Maria” don’t show Sills to her finest advantage of all.

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