Verdi wrote soprano parts for a variety of vocal types. The roles of Abigaille (Nabucco), Violetta (Traviata), and Leonora (Trovatore and Forza) have quite different requirements. The first asks for a spinto capable of both forceful declamation and great agility, but floated high notes and a velvet tone are not needed.
Traviata seems as though written for two different kinds of sopranos. The first act is best handled by a light soprano with a facility for fioratura. ‘Sempre libera’ is the prime example of the need for this type of singing. The remaining two acts require less ornamentation and much emotional expression. There are sopranos who can manage both styles, but never many of them. Given that Traviata is the most performed opera in the world, the odds of finding an ideal Violetta at your local opera house are small.
The Verdi soprano who is the focus of this article is one who can full realize Verdi’s two Leonoras. There’s a third but she’s mostly hidden away. The lead soprano in Il Trovatore and La Forza Del Destino requires a vocal type best embodied by Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981) and Zinka Milanov (1906-89).
Ponselle made her operatic debut at the Met opposite Enrico Caruso when she was 21 years old. She sang 411 performances with the company over the ensuing 19 years. She retired in 1937 at the age of 40. For all things Ponselle and her era consult James Drake’s Rosa Ponselle – A Centenary Biography.
Milanov first appeared at the Met eight months after Ponselle departed. Her definitive biography has yet to be written. These two singers represent the type of soprano best suited for the big Verdi roles of which Trovatore and Forza are archetypal examples.
When the standees at the Met were raving about Milanov during the 50s, one of the older ones would always say, “Yeah she’s good, but you should have heard Ponselle.” Tullio Serafin, who conducted Ponselle many times at the Met, famously said he had heard many great singers, but only three miracles – Caruso, Ruffo, and Ponselle. Were I to list the miracles I had heard in performance, Milanov would be on that list.
Milanov was only nine years younger than Ponselle, but she stayed with the Met until she was 60. The core of her Verdi repetoire, in addition to the two operas mentioned above were Un Ballo in Maschera and Aida which she did 75 times for the Met. She also sang Desdemona in Otello. Ponselle never sang either Ballo or Otello with the company. But she did do La Traviata which received unfriendly responses from the critics. Milanov wouldn’t have touched Verdi’s sinner with a 10 foot long baton. Both sang Ernani, and the Requiem. Ponselle did Don Carlo. Milanov was repeatedly asked to sing Elisabetta in that opera, but always refused giving a lame excuse each time. She did sing Amelia in Simon Boccanegra which Ponselle did not.
‘Pace, pace, mio Dio!’ is central to the type of Verdi soprano characterized by the American and Croatian sopranos. First Ponselle. This recording is said to be an outtake from a 1928 session. It’s better than the version currently available on CD. Her full and rich voice shows why she was so highly valued, even though almost a century has passed since she recorded the music. Her dynamic shading is superb. If there’s a weakness it’s the final high note. Ponselle Pace
There are many recordings of Milanov singing the aria, both from live performances and from the studio. This one was made relatively late in her career. Her unique sound is instantly recognizable. Milanov Pace
Leontyne Price was a Verdian whose gifts rank her with Ponselle and Milanov. She became better the older she got, as did Milanov whose best years were from 1951 to 1956. Price initially did not have full control over her dark and rich voice. When she first appeared at the Met her tone could be unsteady. With experience she fully harnessed her huge talent. This recording was made in 1982 when Price was 55. Leontyne Price Pace
There was another Price who was outstanding in Verdi roles of the type discussed here – Margaret Price. She was somewhat shy and didn’t like to travel which lessened her impact. Nevertheless, she was a fine artist. Margaret Price Pace
Maria Callas sang just about everything which likely helps explain the brevity of her career. She gives the aria a fine and intelligent reading, but a voluptuous sound was not in her vocal arsenal. That said, she reveals all the emotional content that Verdi put into the piece. Callas Pace
The American soprano Eileen Farrell sang a variety of roles and genres. Her voice was large verging on the dramatic. She was one of the few opera singers who could successfully navigate popular songs. She sang 47 times at the Met between 1960 to 66. The only Verdi opera she appeared in with that company was Forza. She sang Leonora eight times there. This performance was taken from an outdoor recital with piano accompaniment. Farrell Pace
Renata Tebaldi started her career at the Met as Desdemona in Otello in 1955 and finished it in the same role in 1973. She sang a variety of roles including Mimì in La Bohème and Violetta in Traviata. She appeared in works by Puccini far more often with the Met than she did Verdi. She sang Forza six times with the company including the performance in which Leonard Warren died. This excerpt is from a 1955 La Scala production when her voice was still fresh and supple. Tebaldi Pace
Montserrat Caballé sang a lot of Verdi as part of the 98 shows she participated in with the Met, but Forza was not among them. The Catalan soprano had great vocal agility, breathtaking pianissimi, and musical intelligence. If there was a shortcoming it was that her sound was not as rich as some of the singers above. Nevertheless, she was a great artist. Caballé Pace
Anita Cerquetti had a brief career that lasted just a few years during the late 50s. She was like a firecracker; she exploded, achieved fame and notice, but her voice failed and she disappeared from the vocal arena. Cerquetti Pace
Katia Ricciarelli had a lovely rich lyric soprano. She gave 47 performances at the Met; a lot of them in Verdi operas. But she didn’t sing Trovatore, Forza, or Aida with the company. She gives a fine if subdued interpretation of the aria. Ricciarelli Pace
Aprile Millo was a Verdi specialist. Most of the 160 performances she gave with the Met were in his operas. Somehow she and the Met never got around to Forza. The beauty of her voice and its great suitability for Verdi should have resulted in more than the 160 appearances over 23 years. Apparently, it was she who limited the number of times she sang with the company. Whatever the reason, it’s a loss she didn’t sing more often. Her singing of the aria is virtually perfect. Millo Pace
Anna Netrebko started as a light soprano and then gradually morphed into big voiced singer suited for the heavy Verdi roles. She hasn’t sung Forza at the Met, but did the opera with Jonas Kaufmann last year at London’s Royal Opera House. Netrebko Pace
There are never more than a few sopranos at any one time who are up to the full requirements that Verdi’s big roles demand. Ponselle and Milanov provide a good standard with which to measure their successors.
I saw Tebaldi in Chenier, voice like a huge fleecy blanket covering orchestra and first floor. Price I saw in Ernani and could barely hear her.
Thank you for sharing this article, Mr. Kurtzman, and especially for providing the recordings! I enjoyed my long stay on this site reading, listening, reading and listening…
You and your readers might enjoy listening to a personal favourite of mine: Megan Marie Hart.
There are a couple of recordings of her singing Pace on Youtube. Megan Marie Hart is the most exciting Verdi soprano to me right now. I first heard her as Luisa Miller in Detmold, a small town in Germany. It was a stellar performance, that I did not expect to find in such a small house. I have to say, I am very glad I went to see this Luisa Miller, after the disappointment of hearing Ms. Yoncheva sing the role at the Met. Much to my joy, Ms. Hart has since gone to a bigger house in Darmstadt, which is far more accessible, as it is a half hour drive from Frankfurt Airport. I can’t wait for the pandemic to be over…
Thank you for posting this lovely list! I only began going to the Met in the early 60s shortly before it closed. A pretty ignorant HS student. Also could only afford SRO where I got to hear great reminiscences and expert analyses as well as glorious opera. What do you think of April Millo’s performance? https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=f1EtAVmiQOk
It’s the same performance linked above – great.