It was with great anticipation that I purchased this retrospective of Sills' extraordinary art. Compiled by the late John Ardoin, it's a generous helping of music from three separate recordings: Sills' Mozart/Strauss album, her French Opera album, and two numbers from a recital in New York. The sheer logistics of distilling three albums onto one CD necessitated the selection of items from each set. While Ardoin has done a good job of selection, the omission of two pieces in particular somewhat undermined my enjoyment of this CD.
We begin with two Mozart arias from an album Sills counted as among her best studio work. It's easy to understand why because both performances demonstrate her ability to combine technical virtuosity with musical artistry. She attacks each aria with assurance, floating the elegant line one minute, dazzling with vocal pyrotechnics the next. But these arias also require a broad range and here is the only flaw in Sills' performance. Despite show-stopping high notes, Sills' lower range was not strong, especially when she was required to jump between registers. Both these selections display moments when Sills' lower voice is dry and thin. It's a serious drawback, especially in a Mozart aria where the voice is so exposed. In comparison, listen to soprano Margaret Price's rendition of "Vorrei spiegarvi" to hear a voice capable of encompassing the full breadth of the aria. Still, Sills' performance remains a remarkable achievement in repertoire with which she was not immediately associated. I must express some misgiving regarding Ardoin's decision to exclude Sills' rendition of the aria, "Ruhe sanft" from this set. While not as showy, this aria requires greater artistry because of its long vocal lines and sustained pianissimos. Sills' performance is brilliant, perhaps the best of the three Mozart selections she recorded, and its omission can only be regarded as a misfortune.
The album now ventures into Sills' true métier, romantic French opera. The arias included here demonstrate Sills' amazing facility with both the French language and its musical style. Her performance of the little known Meyerbeer aria from "Robert le diable" is heartbreaking in its simplicity. With little in the way of vocal effects, Sills conveys a broad canvas of emotions that utterly captivate. Her second Meyerbeer aria is the more familiar "O beau pays" where she displays the crystal clear vocal agility that was uniquely hers. Amazingly, the decision was made to cut the second, showier half of this aria. It's hard to fathom, especially since Sills' performance of this aria was a guaranteed crowd pleaser and her singing of the omitted section on the original album is absolutely breathtaking. I suppose the cut was made to allow room for other selections but, while some pruning may have been necessary, it's hard to lose that wonderful music, especially since the next track, the mad scene from Thomas' "Hamlet", has a long opening section that could have been abbreviated. Not that I would be willing to lose the entire "Hamlet" selection since it contains some of Sills' most voluptuous singing. She caresses each phrase with a plaintive sound evocative of the tragic heroine she is portraying.
Sills has a good time with the next aria, "Je suis Titania', showing off her remarkable trill and clearly articulated notes in its numerous florid passages. A dramatic change of pace follows with "Depuis le jour" from the opera "Louise". Abandoning the flashy showmanship of the previous offerings, Sills delivers a passionately lyrical rendition of this lovely aria. Sills made a complete recording of "Louise" towards the end of her career and the difference between that performance and this one is staggering. Her later version sounds forced, with an annoying vibrato that constantly takes her off pitch. This performance has much more control with Sills managing that rare feat of portraying girlish wonder with a womanly voice.
The next two selections are curios meant to show off Sills' amazing coloratura. The first is from the little known operetta "Le Toreador" but may be more familiar as "Twinkle, twinkle, little star." It's long been a favorite with sopranos possessing the agility to do it justice. Sills is such a soprano and she executes remarkable scales and trills with mind-boggling rapidity and clarity. The Bishop aria, sung in English, is equally challenging, with Sills beautifully conveying the singing of a lark.
Finally we come to the two most satisfying tracks on this CD. Both are by Richard Strauss and show a side to Sills' talent that was never fully appreciated. Although audiences wanted to hear her in Italian or French repertoire, Sills had experience with many German operas, even going so far as to learn "Elektra" for her own pleasure. Her complete Mozart/Strauss album included the entire final scene from the Strauss opera "Daphne" and it can only be hoped that this piece will find its way onto a remastered CD because her performance is staggering. The two Strauss concert arias included here show different sides of Sills' interpretative skills. The first is a restrained, bittersweet piece in which she is deeply moving while the second is a freer, more extroverted little song that shows all of Strauss' flair for coloratura. It's almost a miniature version of Zerbinetta's aria and it makes one wonder what Sills, in her prime, could have done with that brilliant scene.
So is this a fair representation of the art of Beverly Sills? I would say yes, even though I regret the loss of the Mozart aria and the second half of the Meyerbeer. Nonetheless, this CD clearly demonstrates the awesome talent of one of the greatest singers of the twentieth-century. Along with Callas and Sutherland, Sills forms the mighty triumvirate of sopranos responsible for resurrecting the art of bel canto and establishing it once again in the popular consciousness. For that, we must always be grateful and it is with gratitude to John Ardoin and Decca records that I add this CD to my collection.