Beverly Sills Index Page

Maria Stuarda - B Recording Review

Classics Today Magazine, October 1974 by Robert Levine
maria Stuarda is one third of the so-called “three queen” trilogy that defined much of the career of Beverly Sills (along with Lucia, the three Hoffmann heroines, and Manon) in the early 1970s. It was quite an undertaking, and each–Stuarda, Anna Bolena, and Roberto Devereux–was recorded by the since-disapppeared ABC Audio Treasury Series. For reasons opera lovers have been wondering about for years, the recordings went out of print pretty quickly; but now, handsomely remastered, they are making their first appearance on CD, both individually and as a three-opera set. Stuarda also has been recorded by Joan Sutherland and Janet Baker (in a version Donizetti prepared for the lower-voiced Maria Malibran), and there are at least three “private” sets I know of with Montserrat Caballé in the title role….

Stuarda may just be the weakest of the three operas; only Mary and Elizabeth’s music is of any consequence. The men tend to be ciphers, with Leicester’s peacemaking role containing some pretty tenorizing in duets and ensembles, and Talbot, the baritone, turning out to be a pretty tedious Catholic priest ready to console Mary before her death. The opera’s centerpiece, however, is a pip: The two regal babes bump into each other in Fotheringay Park and the confrontaion that ensues (and ends Act 2) is the stuff of high melodrama (or camp). It is, by the way, an entirely invented occurence: the two queens never met. Elizabeth is condescending, Mary is proud; Elizabeth infers that Mary is a slut and Mary volleys by calling Elizabeth a “vile bastard” and thereby signs her own death warrant. Mary’s death scene is ravishing as well; as good as anything Donizetti wrote for soprano.

But don’t get me wrong–it’s a laugh a minute. And this performance is terrific. It was the return to the recording studio after many, many years by dramatic soprano Eileen Farrell as Queen Elizabeth, a role that lies in the high-mezzo range, has lots of coloratura, and needs to be exclaimed as much as sung, since she’s always in some sort of cranky mood. And Farrell is dynamite, hurling her huge voice around like a spear and, though lumbering a bit through the fiorature, is wildly exciting. And Sills is at her purest (well, except when she loses it and the “vil bastarda!” thing gets yelled), loveliest, most refined, dignified, and sad, and the voice is in glorious shape.

Given the role’s limitations, Stuart Burrows is very good as Leicester, singing caressingly when needed and showing some mettle every so often. Louis Quilico’s Talbot is elegantly done. Aldo Ceccato is a fine singers’ conductor–he gives plenty of leeway but doesn’t overindulge, even in an opera like this, which invites overindulgence. The Sutherland/Tourangeau/Pavarotti recording is good, but Sutherland is droopier than needed and Tourangeau is a taste most people never acquire. There’s a fiery Caballé/Verrett pairing but the sound is awful.

Why look any further? For Sills, Farrell, and the drama alone, this one is magnificent.