he record companies did not do well by Beverly Sills. Her great
fame dates from the 1966 New York City Opera production of
Handel's "Giulio Cesare," when the world suddenly awakened to the
fact that there was a distinctly American diva in our midst, with a
voice that was sweet, healthy and versatile and a temperament that
was suited to both daffy pyrotechnics and hefty dramatic roles.
Unfortunately, like many another so-called overnight success, Sills
had then been working hard for quite some time -- 1966 was her 11th
season with the City Opera -- and, during the years when her voice
was at its freshest, she was invited to make only one recording, a
complete performance of Douglas Moore and John Latouche's "The
Ballad of Baby Doe" in 1959.
The smash success of "Giulio Cesare" (which was recorded and still
remains available on RCA Victor) changed everything, of course.
Sills would become the most famous American soprano since Rosa
Ponselle. But her singing had begun to decline by the early 1970s,
and only a select few of her later recordings can be recommended
All the more reason, then, to rejoice in the DVD release of the U.S.
premiere of Richard Strauss's original 1912 version of "Ariadne auf
Naxos," which was telecast live by WGBH-TV from Boston in January
1969 and is available from the Video Artists International label.
The late Erich Leinsdorf conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra with
his usual efficiency and command, and there are winning performances
by Claire Watson as Ariadne, John Reardon as Harlekin, Robert Nagy
as Bacchus and a very young Benita Valente as Najade.
But it is Sills who steals the show, with one of the longest,
craziest arias in the repertory -- the joyous, flighty celebration
of unfettered hedonism that Strauss created for his character
Zerbinetta. It is the coloratura aria to end all coloratura arias --
all trills, arpeggios and stratospheric leaps -- and it goes on
forever. It can, in fact, be quite dull (even, on occasion, the
least interesting music in the opera) unless it is sung with the
radiant good humor and triumphant virtuosity that Sills brings to it
here. She is dazzling, reminding me of nothing so much as a Fourth
of July sparkler that not only refuses to burn out but throws off
ever brighter, bolder light as its time elapses.
I wonder whether the long-ago audience was instructed to be good for
the television cameras and sit politely no matter what, for this is
the sort of performance that would set off a spontaneous half-hour
riot of applause at the Washington National Opera or the Met in
2006, and 1969 Boston seems to have received it relatively coolly.
Still, for those who remember Sills mostly as a "personality,"
through her decades as an arts administrator and her appearances on
talk shows, this remarkable "Ariadne" will provide palpable evidence
of what the first excitement was all about.
"Ariadne auf Naxos," 93 minutes with subtitles in English, French,
German and Italian. $34.95. For information: 800-477-7146 or