About this Recording
8.111142-44 - PONSELLE, Rosa: American Recordings (1939, 1954)
English 

Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981)
American Recordings 1939 and 1954

 

Rosa Ponselle’s place in the history of singing is assured. Geraldine Farrar once said: ‘When discussing singers, there are two you must first set aside - Caruso and Ponselle. Then you may begin’. Many years later, Maria Callas remarked that Rosa Ponselle was ‘the greatest singer of us all’, and Luciano Pavarotti has written: ‘Rosa Ponselle, almost more than any other singer, had the unique combination of voice and musical profundity to advance operatic interpretation by decades, simply by the sheer genius of her artistry ... Whenever young singers approach me and ask whom they should pattern their singing after, I always respond: “Make a sincere study of the recordings of Rosa Ponselle.” To every young singer in any age, ours, or some distant one, this will always be excellent advice. Rosa Ponselle is the Queen of Queens in all of singing,’

For nineteen years Ponselle was the leading soprano at the Metropolitan Opera. She sang three seasons at Covent Garden and inaugurated the premier season of the Maggio Musicale in Florence with La Vestale, honouring a promise made to her dying mother that she would one day sing in Italy. Other than these engagements, she refused to sing outside the United States; she had heard too many unpleasant stories from her colleagues about harsh critics and audiences abroad.

During an eightieth birthday interview a television interviewer asked her about singing high notes. Ponselle replied somewhat humorously: ‘Well, I just hoped to get it’. This response provides an insight into her approach. With her secure technique and breath control, she simply sang her high notes, expecting them to come out as they should while communicating fully the emotional content of the words. They always did except for one performance of Aida in Brooklyn. After agreeing to sing while recuperating from influenza, she could not sustain one of the high notes for as long as she always did. No one in the audience, except her secretary, noticed it. Ponselle, however, was unhappy, and from then on she would sing Aida on tour with the Metropolitan but rarely again in New York.

Ponselle’s final performance with the Metropolitan Opera was a tour broadcast of Carmen in Cleveland in April 1937. The year before, during another Metropolitan Opera tour in Baltimore, she met Carle Jackson, a Baltimore businessman and son of the city’s mayor, during the interval of a performance by Lucrezia Bori. Ponselle was 39 when they married on 13th December 1936.

Soon after her final Metropolitan performance, Ponselle and her husband moved to Hollywood. Throughout her career Hollywood had been a place where she had many friends and could relax. Joan Crawford, Irene Dunne and Gloria Swanson all studied singing, and would often visit the soprano at her home to listen to her sing and receive helpful advice. Ponselle continued to enjoy her sporting pursuits - tennis, golf, attending horse races and swimming - while preparing for her concerts and recordings.

In 1939, still in Hollywood, Ponselle recorded some songs for RCA Victor with Romano Romani, her long-time friend and coach-accompanist. Following the success of these records, RCA Victor offered her a new recording contract and NBC proposed a series of highpaying radio appearances, both of which she declined. In fact Ponselle’s popularity was so immense that the moguls of Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer were keen to involve her in films. Irving Thalberg arranged for her to have a screen test for MGM, which George Cukor directed; owing, however, to Thalberg’s sudden death, negotiations between Ponselle and L. B. Mayer of MGM were unfortunately broken off.

Returning to Baltimore in 1940, Ponselle designed and built a Mediterranean-style house which she named ‘Villa Pace’. The sprawling villa, built in the shape of a cross to ensure fresh air and ventilation, sat on a 300 foot hill which she had built on eighty acres of land in the Greenspring Valley, north of Baltimore. During her retirement many of Rosa’s family and friends visited her at ‘Villa Pace’; these years, however, found her becoming increasingly estranged from her husband and in February 1951 they were divorced. Ponselle never remarried.

While recovering from a period of depression, Ponselle began to work with a small opera company, founded by the Martinets, which, under her artistic leadership, became the Baltimore Civic Opera. Also, she would frequently attend plays and concerts by visiting artists on tour in Baltimore and Washington. At Christmas she always decorated ‘Villa Pace’ lavishly, and for two weeks each year she would open its doors to the public during the afternoons in order to raise money for the Baltimore Symphony and Baltimore Civic Opera.

During a political rally in Baltimore for Dwight Eisenhower, John Charles Thomas had been asked to sing until he made his appearance. Thomas knew that Ponselle, a friend of the Eisenhowers, was in the audience, and he asked the crowd to help him persuade her to come to the microphone. Several minutes of deafening applause accompanied her to the stage. They agreed to do a popular duet, and then Rosa sang Schubert’s Ave Maria, one of Eisenhower’s favourites. She did not know that her voice was being broadcast through loudspeakers outside, nor that it was being recorded. As Eisenhower was arriving in his car, he said to his wife Mamie: ‘That’s Rosa! I’d know her voice anywhere’. Once Eisenhower was inside the auditorium, Ponselle brought him to the stage with ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ from South Pacific. When she came to the end of the song, she changed Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics to ‘Now we have found him ... never let him go!’ A private recording of Ponselle singing during Christmas at Villa Pace (with Robert Lawrence at the piano) found its way to New York, and she soon received recording offers from both RCA Victor and Capitol Records. As Victor had been her artistic ‘home’ on records, she offered them the rights to release her first recordings in fifteen years. Not wanting to travel to New York to record, however, she stipulated that they come to her. They were to stay for a few weeks, during which she would sing when she felt like it. She knew that if her mezza-voce and high pianissimo were ‘here, in the voice’, she would be ‘in top form and could sing anything’. If they were not, she would not sing that day.

In October 1954, with negotiations completed, RCA Victor sent its equipment, chief engineer and his staff down to Villa Pace. During the first session the equipment failed: her voice was simply too large. The equipment used to record the Philadelphia Orchestra was brought in, and it proved ideal. Ponselle chose as her pianist Igor Chichagov, a prominent Russian concert artist whom she had engaged as accompanist in her private vocal studio. Chichagov recalled that the piano was placed at the foot of some steps leading into the music-room. Ponselle stood to his left in the large 26-foot high vaulted entrance foyer, looking through the library to a large glass conservatory. In the dining-room, to her left, the engineers sat with their recording equipment positioned on the heavy antique dining-table. Ponselle would usually record three or four songs during a session. Except for a few hums and the high pianissimo ‘oo’ vowel in her morning shower, there was no need for Ponselle to vocalise; her voice did not need warming up. Chichagov described the recording set-up as ‘difficult’ because he could not actually see Ponselle. Furthermore, because of her spontaneous feeling for the words and her changing emotions, she never sang a song exactly the same way twice. Being instinctively musical, nothing was ever ‘set’: another reason why her singing always remained fresh and alive. Two longplaying records capture these sessions. When ‘Rosa Today’ was released in early 1955 Aida Favia-Artsay wrote: ‘That Ponselle should have agreed to emerge from her self-imposed retirement and to record again for RCA Victor is a surprise and a very heart-warming one, but that she should make her comeback with the freshness of voice she had at the zenith of her career - that is staggering!’

According to Chichagov, whenever Ponselle was coaching an artist engaged to sing with her at Baltimore Opera or an artist sent down at the request of the Metropolitan Opera to work with her, she would so completely become the character she was coaching - whether it were Aida, Leonora, Maddalena, Norma, Santuzza, Violetta - that she herself would disappear. The character would spring to life, bringing a fantastic and eerie feeling into the studio. The film actress and opera fan Gloria Swanson wrote in her 1980 autobiography that Rosa Ponselle was the greatest actress she had ever seen on the operatic stage.

Ponselle told a reporter for a New Orleans newspaper near the end of her career: ‘Great voices are nature’s gift, but so are flowers. A beautiful, well kept garden is the result of toil and constant care. A singer is great only after she has developed her gift to the highest degree possible’. Following a Ponselle La Traviata, Lotte Lehmann asked her friend Geraldine Farrar: ‘How does one get a voice like Ponselle’s?’ Farrar replied: ‘There’s only one way: by a very special arrangement with God - and then one must work very, very hard!’

Rosa Ponselle died at Villa Pace on Memorial Day (25th May) 1981. She was laid to rest in a white marble mausoleum in the Druid Cemetery next to her sister Carmela and near Romano Romani, her beloved friend and coach-conductor-accompanist. On her 75th birthday Harold C. Schonberg had written in The New York Times, ‘There was nothing like the Ponselle Sound, ever; to many of us it is the greatest single voice in any category. She had the low notes of a contralto and a knockout high C; and there were no artificial registers to the voice. It went from bottom to top in the smoothest, most seamless of scales, with no shifting from chest to head. That trill, which no singer today is able to come near matching!, the emotionalism of her singing, combined with good taste, the power when she let loose, the delicacy of her pianissimos, the flexibility in coloratura work, the effortless production, the handsome figure on stage - the good fairy was very kind to Rosa Ponselle!’

David Alexander Terry

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Producer’s Note

These final volumes of Rosa Ponselle’s American recordings include her last 78 rpm discs, with two alternative takes, made in Hollywood in 1939. The recording session was held in a small studio with extremely close microphone placement. Every effort has been made to minimise the boxy character of these recordings, but no extreme measures (i.e. artificial reverberation) have been employed.

Rosa Ponselle’s sudden retirement from the operatic stage and concert platform came as a surprise to her faithful public, and no one dreamed that she would ever again make recordings. In fact, during the 1940s, she gave no public performances. Late in 1949, however, a friend brought a tape recorder to ‘Villa Pace’, Ponselle’s home outside Baltimore, Maryland, and persuaded her to make a recording. Her interest in singing was rekindled, and she became fascinated by the new technology of magnetic tape recording.

Over the next five years Rosa Ponselle made a prolific number of private recordings at ‘Villa Pace’, most of which have been preserved. Some of these were issued on a private subscription LP disc to benefit the Baltimore Civic Opera Company. Ponselle also made a number of public appearances in Baltimore singing for charity events.

News that Rosa Ponselle was singing again reached RCA Victor, and in October 1954 a recording crew was dispatched to ‘Villa Pace’ to make professional recordings which were to be issued commercially. More than fifty titles were recorded over a five-day period. These recordings were subsequently transferred to acetate discs which were sent to ‘Villa Pace’ for Ponselle’s approval. Sixteen selections were chosen and issued on RCA Victor LM 1889 as ‘Rosa Ponselle Sings Today’. In conjunction with the release of this record, a short promotional interview with Ponselle was recorded and distributed to radio stations across the United States. In 1957 an additional sixteen selections were chosen from the 1954 sessions and issued on RCA Victor LM 2047, ‘Rosa Ponselle in Song’. Both albums are reissued here as originally presented by RCA, together with the promotional interview.

By 1960, it was clear that RCA had no further interest in the remaining Ponselle material, and all the original tapes extant in the RCA vault were returned to Ponselle for her own use. She subsequently gave the unissued selections to Edward J. Smith who issued them on his own ASCO and FJS record labels. The master tapes for the two RCA albums were given by Rosa Ponselle to the Library of Congress, which provided copies of these tapes for this CD reissue. Unfortunately the master tapes for the remaining titles have disappeared. Furthermore, the reference acetate discs sent by RCA to Ponselle have also vanished. Tape copies of these acetates were made prior to their disappearance, however, and it is this third-generation source which I have used for the material contained on the third CD. Since the original tapes could not be used, the sonic quality of these selections is therefore inferior to the ‘Villa Pace’ material contained on the first and second CDs.

Ward Marston

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CD 1

The 1939 Victor Recordings
made in the RCA Victor Hollywood Studios

TOSTI: Si tu voulais
31 October 1939; PBS 042206-5 (Victor 2053 B)

DE FONTENAILLES: A l’aimé
31 October 1939; PBS 042207-5 (Victor 2053 A)

RIMSKY-KORSAKOV:
The Nightingale and the Rose
31 October 1939; PBS 042208-3 (Victor 16451 A)

CHARLES: When I have sung my songs
31 October 1939; PBS 042209-1 (VA 68)

CHARLES: When I have sung my songs
31 October 1939;
PBS 042209-3 (unpublished on 78 rpm)

SCHUBERT: Ave Maria
with Mischa Schmidt, violin
1 November 1939; PCS 042212-5 (VA 67)

ARENSKY: On Wings of Dreams
with Mischa Schmidt, violin
1 November 1939; PCS 042213-5 (16451 B)

SCHUBERT: Ave Maria
7 November 1939;
PCS 042212-10 (unpublished on 78 rpm)


RCA Victor ‘Villa Pace’ Recordings,
October 1954

MARTINI: Plaisir d’amour
17 October 1954; no matrix number assigned
(RCA Victor LM 2047)

ANONYMOUS arr. WECKERLIN, J. B.:
Jeune fillette (18th-century Bergerette)
17 October 1954; E4-RC-0703-1
(RCA Victor LM 2047)

DEBUSSY: Beau Soir
17 October 1954; no matrix number assigned
(RCA Victor LM 2047)

DELIBES: Bonjour, Suzon
17 October 1954; no matrix number assigned
(RCA Victor LM 2047)

DEBUSSY: La chevelure
17 October 1954; no matrix number assigned
(RCA Victor LM 2047)

arr. ROSS, Gertrude: Carmen-Carmela
21 October 1954; no matrix number assigned
(RCA Victor LM 2047)

GRANADOS: El Mirar de la Maja
18 October 1954; no matrix number assigned
(RCA Victor LM 2047)

ALVAREZ: La partida
17 October 1954;
E4-RC-0713-1 (RCA Victor LM 2047)

PAISIELLO: La Molinara:
Nel cor più non mi sento
18 October 1954;

E4-RC-0721-1 (RCA Victor LM 2047)
attr. ROSA: Star vicino
19 October 1954;
E4-RC-0715-1 (RCA Victor LM 2047)

TOSTI: A Vucchella
18 October 1954; no matrix number assigned
(RCA Victor LM 2047)

TOSTI: Ideale
18 October 1954;
E4-RC-0709-1 (RCA Victor LM 2047)

TOSTI: Marechiare
18 October 1954; no matrix number assigned
(RCA Victor LM 2047)

SADERO: Fa la nana, bambin
18 October 1954;
E4-RC-0708-2 (RCA Victor LM 2047)

FALVO: Dicitencello vuje
21 October 1954; no matrix number assigned
(RCA Victor LM 2047)

TOSTI: Could I
21 October 1954; no matrix number assigned
(RCA Victor LM 2047)

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CD 2

RCA Victor ‘Villa Pace’ Recordings,
October 1954

LULLY: Amadis: Bois épais
16 October 1954;
E4-RC-0701-2 (RCA Victor LM 1889)

PERSICO: Rosemonde
17 October 1954;
E4-RC-0704-1 (RCA Victor LM 1889)

SAINT-SAENS: Guitares et mandolines
20 October 1954;
E4-RC-0726-1 (RCA Victor LM 1889)

CHAUSSON: Poème de l’amour et de la mer
Le temps des lilas
17 October 1954;
E4-RC-0705-1 (RCA Victor LM 1889)

BRAHMS: Von ewiger Liebe, Op. 43, No. 1
18 October 1954;
E4-RC-0711-1 (RCA Victor LM 1889)

TRUNK: Mir träumte von einem
Königskind, Op. 4, No. 5
18 October 1954;
E4-RC-0712-1 (RCA Victor LM 1889)

SCHUBERT: Erlkönig, Op. 1
19 October 1954;
E4-RC-0715-1 (RCA Victor LM 1889)

BEETHOVEN:
In questa tomba oscura WoO 133
17 October 1954;
E4-RC-0702-1 (RCA Victor LM 1889)

WOLF-FERRARI: Rispetto
20 October 1954;
E4-RC-0724-2 (RCA Victor LM 1889)

DONAUDY: O del mio amato ben
19 October 1954;
E4-RC-0714-2 (RCA Victor LM 1889)

TOSTI: Aprile
18 October 1954;
E4-RC-0710-1 (RCA Victor LM 1889)

SADERO: Amuri, amuri
17 October 1954;
E4-RC-0707-1 (RCA Victor LM 1889)

SADERO: I battitori di grano
17 October 1954;
E4-RC-0706-1 (RCA Victor LM 1889)

TRADITIONAL:
Drink to me only with thine eyes
19 October 1954;
E4-RC-0719-1 (RCA Victor LM 1889)

FARLEY: The Night Wind
19 October 1954;
E4-RC-0720-2 (RCA Victor LM 1889)

DEL RIEGO: Homing
19 October 1954;
E4-RC-0718-2 (RCA Victor LM 1889)


Interview with Ruby Mercer

Introduction and announcement of Lully’s Bois épais
Comments on Persico’s Rosemonde
Comments on Saint-Saëns’s Guitares et mandolines
Comments on Brahms’s Von ewiger Liebe
Comments on Trunk’s Mir träumte von einem Königskind
Comments on Schubert’s Erlkönig
Comments on Beethoven’s In questa tomba oscura
Comments on Wolf-Ferrari’s Rispetto
Comments on Donaudy’s O del mio amato ben
Comments on Tosti’s Aprile
Comments on Sadero’s Amuri, amuri
Comments on Sadero’s I battitori di grano
Comments on Drink to me only with thine eyes
Comments on Farley’s The Night Wind
Comments on del Riego’s Homing and concluding remarks

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CD 3

RCA Victor ‘Villa Pace’ Recordings,
October 1954 (unpublished by RCA Victor)

MOZART: Le nozze di Figaro: Voi che sapete
21 October 1954; no matrix number assigned

CIAMPI (formerly attributed to PERGOLESI):
Tre giorni son che Nina
19 October 1954; no matrix number assigned

SCHUBERT: An die Musik, Op. 88, No. 4
20 October 1954;
E4-RC-0723-1

SCHUBERT:
Der Tod und das Mädchen, Op. 7, No. 3
18 October 1954; no matrix number assigned

WAGNER: Wesendonck Lieder:
No. 5, Traüme
19 October 1954; no matrix number assigned

STRAUSS R.: Morgen!, Op. 27, No. 4
19 October 1954;
E4-RC-0717-1

TCHAIKOVSKY:
Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, Op. 6, No. 6
16 October 1954; no matrix number assigned

DUPARC: L’invitation au voyage
17 October 1954; no matrix number assigned

PALADILHE:Psyché
21 October 1954; no matrix number assigned

CHOPIN arr. LITVINNE: Tristesse éternelle
21 October 1954; no matrix number assigned

DE FALLA: Seven Popular Spanish Songs
No. 3, Asturiana
18 October 1954; E4-RC-0727-2

DE FALLA: Seven Popular Spanish Songs
No. 5, Nana
18 October 1954; E4-RC-0728-1

MUNRO: My Lovely Celia
19 October 1954; no matrix number assigned

LOCKHART MANNING:
In the Luxembourg Gardens
19 October 1954; no matrix number assigned

 BIZET: Agnus Dei
20 October 1954; no matrix number assigned

LUZZI: Ave Maria
20 October 1954; no matrix number assigned

MILLARD: Ave Maria
20 October 1954; no matrix number assigned

SANDOVAL: Ave Maria
20 October 1954; no matrix number assigned

TOSTI: Ave Maria
20 October 1954; E4-RC-0722-1

DENZA: Se
18 October 1954; no matrix number assigned

BUZZI-PECCIA: Colombetta
17 October 1954; E4-RC-0725-1

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CD 1
tracks 1-8 with Romano Romani, piano;
tracks 9-20 & 24 with Igor Chichagov, piano;
tracks 21-23 with Rosa Ponselle, piano

CD 2
tracks 1-11 & 13-16 with Igor Chichagov, piano;
track 12 with Rosa Ponselle, piano

CD 3
tracks 1-14 & 19-21 with Igor Chichagov, piano;
tracks 15-18 with Igor Chichagov, organ

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Sung in French (CD 1: tracks 1-2 & 9-13; CD 2: tracks 1-4; CD 3: tracks 8-10)
Sung in English (CD 1: tracks 3-5 & 7; CD 2: tracks 14-16 & 24; CD 3: tracks 14-15)
Sung in Italian (CD 1: tracks 17-18 & 20-22; CD 2: tracks 8, 11 & 13; CD 3: tracks 1-2 & 18-21)
Sung in Neapolitan dialect (CD 1: tracks 19 & 23; CD 2: track 12)
Sung in Spanish (CD 1: tracks 14-16; CD 3: tracks 11-12)
Sung in German (CD 2: tracks 5-7; CD 3: tracks 3-7)
Sung in Latin (CD 1: tracks 6 & 8; CD 3: tracks 15-17)


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