The Sills legacy at City Opera. Her 8-year tenure leaves company fiscally sound

With the close of the New York City Opera season last month, the curtain is also coming down on Beverly Sills's eight-year tenure as general director. She steps down officially next March. Miss Sills's years at the helm have not been without controversy, but it must be remembered that she took over when the company was on the brink of financial ruin, and she's leaving it with surpluses, a reliable subscription pool, and a more consistent performance standard.

It was an uphill battle from the start. The precipitous Sills appointment was crudely handled by aggressive factions on the NYCO board. The first few years saw many bumps - the most serious, a deficit far worse than she had been led to believe. But when the chips were down, Sills fought, and when she made a mistake (as with the disastrous new production of Verdi's ``I Lombardi''), she shouldered the blame.

When catastrophe hit, in the form of a warehouse fire that reduced the company's costume inventory - including most of Sills's own gowns - to ashes, she put on a brave face and tried to play down the financial impact on a company whose balance sheets had just made it into the black.

Under her tenure, the appointment of, first, Christopher Keene and then Sergiu Comissiona as music directors translated into an increasingly proficient and reliable orchestra. Sills's most controversial decision was to fuse the fall and spring seasons into one July-November stretch, with a musical on the boards in March. Potential union problems eventually dissolved.

In addition to her administrative duties, Sills has played host to the annual City Opera TV presentation on ``Live From Lincoln Center'' (PBS), and she is unquestionably the best classical music host on TV. The operas televised during her tenure have given a good indication of casting and production values at City Opera.

In terms of casting, Sills has been loyal to her friends and colleagues who sang with her during her final stage years. She has also elevated others to prominence during her reign. Both factors have made for a consistency of performance style and a genuine City Opera family of singers - if not always for vocal glamour. The handful of singers who have added that glamour - including Samuel Ramey and Jerry Hadley - have interacted with the company only tangentially.

Sills's production tastes have been on the conservative side, and she has failed to find the new directorial talent that might have brought back the vitality the company had in earlier years.

Of course, Sills has not avoided new works. The ones mounted under her leadership range from from Philip Glass's ``Akhnaten'' to Dominick Argento's ``Casanova.'' Not all have been successful, but at least they have proved the company's commitment to the new.

The just-ended season saw the premi`ere of Jay Reise's ``Rasputin'' and the revival of Benjamin Britten's ``The Turn of the Screw'' and Douglas Stuart Moore's ``The Ballad of Baby Doe.'' (Reise's work was reviewed here Sept. 29.)

It was fitting that ``Baby Doe'' be a part of Sills's final season. It is the work that brought her to prominence when the complete recording of the opera was issued in 1958. In the title role, Sills cast her favorite young artist, Faith Esham, who has been the company's star performer for well over five years now.

Unfortunately, the production was fraught with problems. The new costumes clashed horribly with the historic Donald Oenslager sets, which, under Ken Tabachnick's lighting showed us the creases and tears rather than the perspectives painted on them. Hal France conducted well from a dramatic point of view, though the orchestral sounds were not always as beguiling as they could have been.

Miss Esham got all the notes out but failed to convey the ease and limpidness the music demands. William Parcher struggled with the demanding role of Horace Tabor. And, because Joyce Castle found the vocal challenges of Augusta Tabor too daunting, she was only partly successful in bringing this unusual character to life. Nevertheless, one was struck anew by the impact of this uniquely American work, which surely deserves a new production.

Britten's chamber opera has not been seen on this stage for 12 years. It was given a very substantial revival, with outstanding performances by Jedidiah Cohen as Master Miles and debuting tenor Peter Kazaras as Peter Quint. Mr. Keene, who takes over the company's reins from Miss Sills, conducted magnificently.

The Britten is just the sort of work Keene does particularly well, and the orchestra responds sensitively to his guidance. The City Opera built its reputation on contemporary operas and innovative productions - things Keene knows quite a lot about. So it very well may be that Sills's wisest appointment was that of Keene as her successor, for it will be his mandate to reshape the company and prepare it for, not only the next decade but for the 21st century as well.

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