hough Beverly Sills did make complete recordings of Lucia di Lammermoor, I Capuleti e i Montecchi and Roberto Devereux, this recital contains no highlights or excerpts from her full-length sets. It reincarnates on CD a solo program the diva recorded in Vienna thirty years ago last June, with uncommonly elegant support from Finnish conductor Jussi Jalas.
Sills’ timbre, like that of Sutherland and Leontyne Price, was never readily captured by recording engineers. Some of the silvery shine that gave it its radiance was always missing. The difficulties involved may have something to do with the reluctance of record companies to remaster her output for CD. This British disc, however, does her exceptional justice. And it catches her at her zenith, with no hint of the tonal unsteadiness that sometimes intruded on later recordings.
As Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix or Bellini’s Amina in La Sonnambula, Sills produces a sunny sound, relaxed and cheerful, absorbing trills and roulades into the line as if they were a natural part of everyday speech. Full recitatives are included; they show, and repay, careful attention. In the pensive roles of Lucia and the Capuleti Giulietta, the soprano’s voice takes on a pathos that conveys sadness and anxiety. In the capstone of the recital, “Vivi, ingrato” from Roberto Devereux, she acts out the anguish of Queen Elizabeth I, a regal yet pathetic figure.
From a technical standpoint, this is model singing, with straight-on attacks to pitch and beat, ornamentation clearly articulated and musically shaped. Interpretively, it is far more — a lesson in how to conceive long phrases as a whole, imbuing them with expressive intensity. Unlike many adroit coloratura sopranos, Sills was equally a mistress of legato. If she didn’t rely much on the fabled messa di voce — the tapering of volume on a single note — she nevertheless varied her volume a great deal, along with her verbal shading. This was an artist who had something of her own to say in whatever kind of role. She created for herself, and used to the full, the kind of expressive elbow room that the bel canto greats of the nineteenth century must have enjoyed.