Here it is at last, the classic 1959 recording of Douglas Moore’s colorful opera of our country’s Wild West past: The Ballad of Baby Doe (Deutsche Grammophon 465 148-2), reissued just in time to celebrate the 70th birthday of Beverly Sills, who made a specialty of the title role. I think few will deny this lovable work a spot on the shortlist of best-ever American operas or even dispute that the performance preserved here represents Sills’s most impressive recorded work. The legendary retired diva made most of her commercial records in the seventies – too late to explain why she was such a media sensation back then. Her real vocal prime had come a decade before that, and Baby Doe ushered it in. Moore may not have written the role expressly for Sills (Dolores Wilson was the first Baby Doe), but the tuneful music both flatters her whole cuddly vocal personality and shows off her remarkable skill at sustaining long, arching lines and finely spun pianissimos.
The performance has other strengths: Walter Cassel’s vocally virile and wonderfully theatrical Horace Tabor; Frances Bible’s equally eloquent Augusta; Emerson Buckley’s dashing musical direction; and a host of energized New York City Opera regulars, voices that will stir many pleasant memories for anyone who was around back then. Best of all, the whole cast beautifully captures the undercurrent of disappointment and lost dreams that lies beneath the surface of this brash drama, qualities that give the opera a real tragic dimension. The latest CD technology attempts to tame the original tinny, shallow sonics that blemished the recording’s three previous LP incarnations, but the sound is still only just tolerable. In that respect, a new Baby Doe would be welcome, but Sills and company continue to make this one irreplaceable.