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This set offers a substantial sampling of operas on which the soprano put her distinctive stamp, including Verdi's "La Traviata" and "Rigoletto" (keen character insights and vibrant vocalism abound in both). The excerpts from Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" and Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" may not be quite as persuasive, but they still reveal how vibrant a force Sills could be in comic works.


HANDEL: "Giulio Cesare" (RCA, double CD)
To get a compelling idea of what catapulted Sills to stardom, start here, with her sensational performance as Cleopatra. Severe purists may have a hard time, since this opera was performed long before the historical authenticity movement corrected the mishandling of Handel and other baroque composers, but the rest of us can just drink in the vitality and honesty of the entire venture. The recording has lost none of its power, nearly 40 years after it was made, and the beauty, agility, and incisiveness of the soprano's contributions, in particular, still astonish.

DONIZETTI: THE THREE QUEENS -- "Anna Bolena," "Maria Stuarda," "Roberto Devereux" (Deutsche Grammophon, seven-CD box set)
This trio of operas, inspired by momentous events in English history, presented Sills with as much musical as dramatic potential, and she seized all of it. These gripping performances represent a high mark in her career and in the preservation of important bel canto repertoire. Of particular note is the elaborate ornamentation the soprano offers in her arias -- a degree of embellishment most singers would never dare attempt, let alone execute so fearlessly, thrillingly, and meaningfully.

MASSENET: "Manon" (EMI, three-CD set)
Sills found in the title character of this opera an ideal match of style and temperament onstage and in the recording studio. Her voice glows here as she illuminates the essence of Manon's flawed but irresistible nature.

MOORE: "The Ballad of Baby Doe" (Deutsche Grammophon, double CD)
If Douglas Moore was born to write this atmospheric American opera, Beverly Sills was born to sing it. Her performance of the title role remains one of the soprano's supreme achievements, and the 1959 recorded document of that success has lost none of its haunting, lyrical beauty.

ROSSINI: "L'Assedio di Corinto" (Opera d'Oro, double CD)
If you can find this live 1969 recording from La Scala starring Sills and mezzo marvel Marilyn Horne, grab it. Everything you need to know about what made Sills so special, so arresting onstage is right here. The warmth of the tone, the tenderness of expression, the imaginative and seemingly spontaneous ornamentation -- these traits sound as startling today as they obviously did to the folks at La Scala, who can be heard screaming their approval. You'll be tempted to shout right along with them.

Finding all of these recommendations on disc may not be easy, especially through retail stores, but various online merchants are likely to prove useful in the search.

Top banner photos: Beverly Sills in ''The Merry Widow,'' ''Manon'' (© Metropolitan Opera Guild, photo by William Harris), and ''Roberto Devereux.''

Beverly Sills

Beverly Sills on THE DICK CAVETT SHOW.

Carol Burnett and Beverly Sills

Carol Burnett and Beverly Sills

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The DVD is available.

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