onductor Thomas Schippers gave the downbeat at 8 p.m. But the show that everyone had been waiting for did not begin until 8:22. That was when Beverly Sills emerged from the wings at the Metropolitan Opera to join her fellow Greeks in the grim doings of Rossini’s The Siege of Corinth. Looking slender and vulnerable in a long blue gown, Sills moved down a small set of stairs, but never had a chance to sing her opening line, “Che mat sento?”(What do I hear?). She knew what she heard—a minute-long roar of welcome not experienced at the Met since the debut of Joan Sutherland in 1961. That was only the beginning. After Sills’ showpiece aria “Si ferite, ” the house went wild for 41⁄2 minutes. At evening’s end, the curtain calls went on for 181⁄2 minutes.
Out in the audience, opera-loving Comedian Danny Kaye let out several ear-piercing whistles and called for a speech. Confetti and roses floated down from the upper tiers; several bouquets came sailing across the orchestra pit. Sills fielded one with her right hand, then separated it and gave half to her co-star Shirley Verrett.
Love for a Turk. Thus came the culmination of the best-known success saga in American opera. With a 36-year career already behind her, first as a child prodigy on radio, most recently as the star of the rival New York City Opera, Sills had proved years ago that it was possible to have a major career in the U.S. and Europe without the Met (TIME, April 7). Now, both Beverly Sills and the Met were at last together.
As Pamir a, the doomed daughter of the governor of Corinth, Sills successfully
re-established her claim as the most radiant and musical of prima donnas. The dilemmas that Pamira finds herself in would try even Aida, and Sills rose to them all. Briefly, Pamira loves Maometto (Bass Justino Diaz), the leader of the attacking Turks. Her father wants her to marry the Greek warrior Neocle (Mezzo Verrett).
She elopes with Maometto, but persuaded by loyalty to her homeland, she returns to Corinth and stabs herself to death as Maometto’s troops enter and sack the burning city.
The Siege of Corinth had never been presented at the Met, nor very regularly in modern times until Sills helped revive it in 1969 at Milan’s La Scala. Just as Handel’s Julius Caesar at the City Opera had established her American reputation in 1966, the La Scala Siege made her an international star. Last week one could see and hear why. In lesser hands, Rossini’s florid vocal writing might be just that—little more than tedious vocalizing. With Sills, a mistress of bel canto, each triplet, each double-octave run, each pianissimo high note was given musical and dramatic meaning. At one point in the second act, she sang lying on her back on one of Maometto’s couches. At another, she held a soft high D while strolling away from the audience. None of that is especially conducive to perfectly calibrated tones; the oldtimers did not plant their feet squarely at stage center for nothing. A few of Sills’ high notes were thin or flat. Most, however, were right on target, and her voice still carries with it a magical image of shimmering silver and gold.
She kept good company. Verrett, singing her first bel canto opera at the Met, was emphatic and secure as Neocle. It is a so-called pants role, written originally by Rossini for contralto, but later rescored for tenor in deference to the historic Parisian insistence that men are men and women are women. Today, the role could be sung by either tenor or contralto. The female version is more elaborate, and Conductor Schippers prefers it. Decked out in armor and an elegant Zachary Scott mustache, Verrett moved enough like a man to make the impersonation halfway acceptable. Hers is not a warm voice, but it is clear and brilliant. Dramatic coloratura lines spun out in the third act’s “Non temer” brought Verrett a three-minute ovation of her own. As Maometto, the tall, athletic Justino Diaz not only displayed one of the richest, manliest basses around, but actually made this terrible Turk a figure of dignity and believable emotion.
What a Tent! The drop-style production mounted for Sills’ debut is both attractive and sensibly economical ($175,000, cheap by current prices). The sets are fashioned after La Scala 1969, except that the second act is set in Maometto’s tent rather than on his ship. And what a tent it is—opulent red carpets and ottomans, hanging lamps, each big enough to contain a man, table lamps that burn with a molten glow.
If there is a fault to be found with the production, it is with the way Stage Director Sandro Sequi, who directed the opera at La Scala, handles the chorus. Visual non Sequiturs play a big part in his theory of direction. When in doubt, he makes the chorus crisscross. If the arrival of a leading character is announced offstage, he sends half the chorus scurrying for the wings to clear space. That is maddening, because Rossini made the chorus an active participant in the drama rather than a commentator.
This is a small complaint compared to the larger joys of the occasion. Beverly Sills has made it to the stage of the Met at a time when the house needs a star of her talent and box office impact. On the way, she has been heard at such opera capitals as Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, Deutsche Oper in Berlin, San Carlo of Naples, La Fenice in Venice, not to mention San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Houston and Cincinnati. There are no more debuts she needs to make, just new roles and unfamiliar music, which is what the saga of Beverly Sills is really all about anyway.