Beverly Sills Index Page

The Ballad of Baby Doe - A Recording Review

Opera News, August 1999 v64 i2 p52 by F. Paul Driscoll.
forty 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 this good.

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.