he third in VAI’s recent series of Sillsiana (after La Fille du Régiment and La Traviata) is surely the most important. Of all the roles undertaken by the American diva, probably none engaged her so completely as the Elizabeth reconstructed in bel canto terms by Donizetti. That this regina d’Inghilterra involves so much more than just lovely singing, and that on this occasion she presented an artist who grew to understand power with a chance to portrary another undone by it, set up the conditions for the kind of operatic combustion that occurs with understandable rarity. At the time of this performance at Wolf Trap, a telecast from 1975, Sills already had five seasons of Devereux under her belt, and while the incised fury and feverish emotion of the part’s declamatory line did her vocal health no good, by this time she had molded her characterization into something as commanding as it was startling. The intervening years have only sharpened the effect.
One would be hard pressed to find a moment in opera to equal the impact of the Act II denunciation of Roberto, her lover (a pity the tape has been reconstructed so as to lop off the ovation the soprano always got after this scene). It’s a high point, but only one among many.
The surrounding forces do honor to the star. Director Tito Capobianco keeps the stage a reasonably fluid constellation around her, and Julius Rudel conducts with full sympathy and support. Seeing the late tenor John Alexander here as the doomed Devereux reminds us what a fine musician he was. Susanne Marsee and Richard Fredricks as the Nottinghams, the hapless couple caught between the Queen and the object of her desire, perform with sufficient creditability that moments spent away from the monarch are not much regretted.
The picture is frequently better than the sound quality, which is somewhat stridently narrow throughout. It really doesn’t matter. Query: may one hope VAI eventually will issue the Sills-Treigle Coq d’Or from the pioneering cable telecast of 1971