he performing career of Beverly Sills was a joy when it happened. Here was a soprano with a sunny, bell-like instrument that lusted for silvery roulades, a singer with real stage temperament - assured, confident, eager for challenges - combined with the communications skills of a no-nonsense personality thoroughly New York in its smarts, and proud of it. Sills in her heyday was the jokey but very savvy kid diva from Brooklyn taking her home company, New York City Opera, to pinnacles of excitement that many of its bigger and richer counterparts could only marvel at. Two souvenirs of the latter part of that era, the mid-1970s, have recently been released in the form of videotapes from Wolf Trap (at the time, NYCO’s summer home). These broadcasts, left mostly in their original format - interviews and oral plot synopses not edited out - capture to a large extent the Sills mystique, even if they fall on the shady side of her most golden - or silvery - seasons.
The Traviata is the more rewarding offering. Sills was always better at tragedy than comedy. A serious subject forced her to examine the particularities of a dramatic predicament; in comedy she was too often content to bubble along as herself. This tendency undermines La Fille du Régiment so that the heavy-handed carryings-on by one and all, as directed by Lotfi Mansouri, emerge as pure summer camp, with Sills as head counselor. But in Traviata, although Tito Capobianco apparently could not guide her to a fully developed characterization, she’s deeply into the right mood, and the production as a whole, while obviously assembled quickly, is honorable.
One watches La Traviata with current pleasure; one watches La Fille with regret for not being there on a warm summer’s evening, not caring how silly the whole thing is.
Both Sills’ tenors are capable: a game, endearingly oafish William McDonald, with most of the high Cs for Tonio, and a very stylish Henry Price as Alfredo. Conductors Charles Wendelken-Wilson (Fille) and Julius Rudel (Traviata) hold things together nicely. Picture quality for both tapes is more than acceptable, sound quality about what might be expected from those pre-stereo television years.