Despite the obvious advantage of hearing Beverly Sills in one of her celebrated Three Queens roles, for many opera aficionados there will be an almost equal attraction in being able to hear Eileen Farrell as Elisabetta. She was an under-recorded artist who curtailed her opera career early and there is a special thrill in haring her huge, slightly unwieldy dramatic soprano negotiate Donizetti's florid lines. Her voice obviously contrasts strongly with Sills' lyric coloratura soprano and even though I prefer the great mezzo Dame Janet Baker above all as the doomed Mary Stewart, as long as there is sufficient contrast between the two queens the drama works.
The rest of the cast is also very strong. We hear Stuart Burrows' lovely, plaintive lyric tenor in its prime, the vibrant mezzo of Patricia Kerns and the firm baritone of Louis Quilico; even the smaller role of Cecil is taken by distinguished British-based South African baritone Christian du Plessis, backed by the excellent John Alldis Choir and directed expertly and idiomatically by Aldo Ceccato.
First performed four years before Verdi's first stage work and obviously a great influence on the next generation of Italian operas, "Maria Stuarda" is replete with both drama and melody; the music moves fluidly from broad cantilena to fleeting arioso to quickfire recitative and conveys a pervasive sense of forward motion; there is little padding or filler and the characters' psychological states are sharply etched. There are passages of great delicacy to offset the Sturm und Drang of conflict - hence Mary's opening aria in which she apostrophises the clouds and the open air of freedom is lightly scored by harps, flutes and dreamy horns - which are of course beautifully complemented by Sills' ethereal soprano. The three-quarter time duet for Mary and Leicester clearly either consciously or otherwise served as the model for many a similar passage in Verdi's early and middle-period operas, through "Rigoletto" and perhaps beyond.
Of course the core of the drama is the depiction of the fictional meeting between the two rival monarchs, beginning with the sextet "E sempre la stessa". It is delivered here with searing intensity by all concerned, the sparks flying from “figlia impura di Bolena" through to the hurled insult "vil bastarda" and the consternation of all concerned which concludes Act II.
Sills was still in very fine voice in 1971 and rises nobly to the challenges of the last Act, matching Baker in pathos and heroism. There are more pre-Verdi echoes in "Quando di luce rosea" which is as subtle and touching an aria as any Donizetti ever wrote, its effects enhanced by the efficacy of Sills' trill, the purity of her tone and the gleam of her soaring high notes.
Apart from Baker in English, the alternative recording from Decca with Sutherland and Pavarotti is in many ways equally recommendable and I could not necessarily choose between them even though I concede that Sills sounds fresher here than Sutherland in 1975.