Opera News, August 1999 v64 i2 p52
by F. Paul Driscoll.
|orty years after its first release, the 1959 Polydor recording of Douglas Moore’s
The Ballad of Baby Doe has finally been issued on CD. It has been worth the wait.
Whether or not Baby Doe is a great opera, this performance, with Emerson Buckley
conducting the forces of New York City Opera, is an authentic masterpiece.The story,
based on the real-life love affair and marriage of nineteenth-century Colorado silver
magnate Horace Tabor and Mrs. Elizabeth (”Baby”) Doe, seems almost quaint today,
when sexual scandal has little shock value, but this reading of Moore’s masterwork
has lost none of its appeal. Perfectly cast and flawlessly paced, unmistakably and
unapologetically American in accent and character, this Baby Doe delivers hit-show
high spirits with musicianship and theatrical savvy of the highest order.
Long absent from the catalogue in any format because of legal complications
(detailed by Rebecca Paller in the October 1998 issue of OPERA NEWS), the City
Opera Baby Doe acquired legendary status early in life. In an age of
studio-engineered ensembles, this was an opera recording with a vivid
original-cast-album flavor. The three leads, Walter Cassel (Horace Tabor),
Frances Bible (Augusta) and Beverly Sills (Baby Doe), were colleagues at New
York City Opera who had sung there together under Buckley’s direction in Baby Doe
less than two months before the recording sessions began in June 1959. While all
three principal artists score full marks in their important arias, the fresh, live-
performance feel is established by the way each singer understands the dramatic
impact of the seemingly unimportant, off-hand moments provided by John
LaTouche’s skillfully crafted libretto: Bible interrupting her monologue about Horace
with a clipped instruction to the maid Samantha not to “miss the corners”; Cassel’s
restlessly dismissive “Soon” when summoned to bed by his wife; Sills’ pale,
expressionless but firm “Goodbye” at the end of her first meeting with Augusta.
When Sills first performed Baby Doe, she wasn’t a superstar, or even a star, but
merely one of several intelligent, attractive American sopranos under contract to
New York City Opera. It was in Baby Doe that her extraordinary gifts were first
recognized by a large audience, the electric connection between singer and role
evident even to the most casual listener. Her voice is at its absolute freshest— silvery, dear, uncannily responsive — and her command of the text inspired. The
entrance scene and first meeting with Horace are brilliantly timed and delivered,
from the innocently flip “I have to find the way myself” to her deliciously colored
parting shot, “Indeed we’ll meet again.” She marks herself as a first-class singing
actress with her shinning traversal of the fourth scene of Act I, which progresses
from the exquisite lyricism of the letter song (Baby Doe’s loneliness and longing
keenly realized in every measure) to the earnest, almost minuet-like meeting with
Augusta to the soaring, defiant acceptance of Horace Tabors love. Sills’ Baby Doe
is a completely convincing characterization, owning charm, wit and heart in equal
measure. Every note, every word, every effect is persuasive, in moments great
(the incandescent Silver aria) and small (the sweetening of vocal tone when she
addresses her daughters.) Sills became a true superstar in 1966, when her brilliant
Cleopatra crowned NYCO’s Giulio Cesare; one marvels that it took the international
opera community seven years after the release of Baby Doe to “discover” a singer
Cassel and Bible never matched Sills in celebrity, but in this performance they are
fully her equals in star power. Cassel is wonderful from first to last, charging the
opening scene with bravado in the fast-paced miners’ folk song, endowing the final
moments of the opera with poignant dignity in his broken-hearted, weary farewell.
His sensitivity to musical detail is remarkable: in his second scene with Baby Doe,
he underlines the words “Deep in your lovely eyes/All of enchantment lies,” neatly
anticipating the repeat in the winds of the same tumescent musical phrase when
Augusta calls him to bed. Bible’s feminine tone and natural warmth humanize the
rock-ribbed, emotionally immovable Augusta, her collection of confrontation scenes
setting the stage for a showstopping final monologue in Act II.
Packaging for the CD is a retread of the 1976 LP release, with background material
on the Tabors and updated biographies of Sills, Bible and Cassel. Unfortunately,
no material is provided on Moore or LaTouche, and the “essay” on the opera by Sills
is an excerpt from her 1976 memoir Bubbles. Sonics are as good as can be expected— there are some audible tape splices in mid-scene, and Baby Doe’s offstage call to
Horace sounds too dose for comfort — but these are minor problems.
This Baby Doe is an American classic.