Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981) was born Rosa Ponzillo in Meriden Connecticut to immigrant parents from southern Italy. Her vocal gifts were apparent at an early age and she started to sing professionally at 18. Her repertoire was mainly popular ballads. Shortly thereafter she began to sing on the vaudeville circuit with her older sister Carmela, who was also an accomplished singer.
Carmela took voice lessons in New York with William Thorner. Rosa soon joined her. Thorner convinced Enrico Caruso to hear Rosa sing. The great tenor was so impressed that he, in turn, convinced the Met’s general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, to offer her a contract for the 1918-19 season. She made her Met and operatic debut in the company’s first performance of Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino on November 15, 1918 opposite Caruso.
Ponselle was an immediate success and sang 411 performances at the Met over the next 19 years. Her frequency of appearances at the Met diminished in the thirties until in 1937 she just stopped singing; she was 40. Her reasons for leaving opera at such a young age were several. She added Violetta in La Traviata and Carmen in the thirties. Though her impersonations of these roles were greatly admired by New York audiences, the critics were harsh. She began to have difficulty with the top of her vocal range. She and the Met management disagreed over the roles she should perform. Also, she was the victim of severe stage fright during her entire career. All these combined led to her leaving opera for good in 1937.
Though why she should have paid any attention to the New York critics is beyond me. Some didn’t like her Norma which she first sang in 1927 and is now regarded as one of the wonders of the Met’s history. The Met’s website devotes an entire chapter to Ponselle’s first Norma. WJ Henderson of the New York Sun wrote, “We are bound to confess, however, that in the recitatives, not only Miss Ponselle, but every one else in the cast was heavy and monotonous.” He also didn’t like the opera. HT Craven of the Philadelphia Record was much more impressed when Ponselle sang the role in that city in December. “Greatest Opera Success Scored by Rosa Ponselle” was the title of his review.
Almost her entire operatic career was at the Met. She sang three seasons at Covent Garden and one in Florence, which were the totality of her European outings.
Ponselle’s strength was the Italian dramatic soprano repertory in which I can think of only one other singer since the start of the recording age who could be considered her equal – Zinka Milanov, whose first performance at the Met was 8 months to the day after Ponselle’s last.
Let’s start with Norma. Ponselle sang the role 29 times at the Met Casta Diva is one of greatest challenges that faces an Italian dramatic soprano. It requires beauty and riches of tone, a long and luxuriant vocal line, and in its cabaletta – vocal agility and energy. Ponselle’s recording of the introduction, aria, and cabaletta with chorus shows why she was such a great Norma.
A word about a recording versus a performance heard in the house. Some singers sound better on records while others sounded better when heard live. Caruso was an example of the latter. As a young man I knew many older opera goers who had heard the great Neapolitan live. They all said that what you heard on his recordings was half of what was there in the original. I can vouch from experience that the same was true of Richard Tucker. The reverse was true of Jussi Björling, at least when he was performing in a large house like the Met. He was sometimes hard to hear. Zinka Milanov when she was on, which wasn’t every performance, was as good in the house as on records. Everyone I knew who heard Ponselle live was bowled over by the beauty of her voice. I suspect that as good as she is on records, she was better on the stage of the Met.
Here are two recording from her debut opera, La Forza Del Destino. La vergine degli angeli recorded in 1928 concludes the second act. It signifies Leonora’s grant of sanctuary by a monastery – gender confusion apparently is not a new phenomenon. It’s one of Verdi’s most inspired effects. The bass is Ezio Pinza. Pace, pace mio Dio also recorded in 1928 shows the singer at the acme of her powers. What strikes the listener is the beauty and richness of her sound and the paucity of vibrato – an absence that troubled some Italian critics. This is the place to cite the great Italian maestro Tulio Serafin’s statement that while he had heard many great singers, only three were miracles – Caruso, Ruffo, and Ponselle.
Verdi’s other Leonora (actually there are two others, but Oberto is not an operatic staple) was another role ideally suited to Ponselle’s voice, though she only sang the part 17 times with the company and more than half were on tour. ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee and the Miserere’ from the last act of Il Trovatore are as great a challenge to a dramatic soprano as exists in Italian opera. The tenor on this recording is Giovanni Martinelli who sounds less annoying than he usually does. He’s supposed to be off stage, but he seems to have swallowed the microphone.
Ponselle sang 7 performances of Rossini’s William Tell at the Met, all in 1923 and all in Italian rather than the original French. Selva opaca is a romance in the opera’s second act. Mathilde is waiting for her lover Arnold and has to do something to pass the time.
Spontini’s La Vestale has received 9 performances at the Met, all of them with Ponselle as the titular virgin. If the entire opera were as beautiful as O nume tutelar it would be done more often. Ponselle’s singing of the piece is stupendous.
Elvira in Ernani was another of Ponselle’s Verdi roles. Ernani involami is suited to Ponselle’s lush, but flexible voice. Verdi sopranos typically also sing Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. Ponselle was no exception – 36 performances with the Met. Suicidio describes Gioconda’s intention to kill herself rather than sleep with the baritone. The tenor, idiosyncratically, prefers the mezzo.
Ponselle’s Traviata, as I mentioned, was not well received by some of the New York critics. To me her performance is very persuasive. The following excerpts are from the broadcast of the opera in 1935. The baritone in the great second act duet is Lawrence Tibbett. As can be expected from an 80 year old broadcast recording, the sound is far less than ideal. Ah,fors’è lui… Sempre libera (the tenor is Frederick Jagel) , Traviata act 2 duet, Addio del passato.
Finally, here are two Puccini arias. Ponselle never sang any Puccini at the Met or anywhere else as far as I know. Vissi d’arte and Un bel di vedremo from Tosca and Madama Butterfly, respectively. These recording were made early in Ponselle’s career and show an extraordinarily beautiful voice that doesn’t quite have the passion Puccini requires. But what a voice!
I mentioned who Serafin’s vocal miracles were. My three (in chronological order) are Zinka Milanov, Leonard Warren, and Giuseppe Di Stefano.