Beverly Sills Index Page

Ariadne Auf Naxos DVD Recording Review


Washington Post, July 09, 2006, by Tim Page

the 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 wholeheartedly.

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 http://www.vaimusic.com/ .