About this Recording
8.110728 - PONSELLE, Rosa: Rosa Ponselle Sings Verdi (1918-1928)

Rosa Ponselle sings Verdi

Recordings from 1918-1928

‘This was the most glorious voice that ever came

from a woman’s throat in the Italian repertory’

Walter Legge


Such extravagant claims as Walter Legge’s are not unusual where Rosa Ponselle is concerned; for many admirers of fine singing she was, quite simply, the greatest soprano of the twentieth century. Had the glorious richness of her voice not found her a top place among world singers, the extraordinary circumstances of her first appearance on the operatic stage, and subsequent twenty-year career, would undoubtedly have earned it for her.

The story of Ponselle’s early musical life, as a singer on the American vaudeville circuit with her sister Carmela, gives no hint of future fame, and it was thanks to the efforts of her teacher William Thorner that she made her operatic début at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. After just three months’ vocal training with Thorner, Ponselle was booked for an audition with Enrico Caruso and then, given the great tenor’s seal of approval, with Giulio Gatti-Casazza, manager of the Metropolitan; her contract to sing Leonora in Verdi’s La forza del destino was immediately prepared. For the next five months she studied the rôle with Romano Romani, a highly respected voice coach and composer, and the success that she scored on 15th November 1918 justified the faith that had been placed in her. Ponselle had never before sung in any opera house, she was not yet 22, and overnight she became the toast of the Met.

Ponselle appeared in many other operas on that famous stage, but the rôle that she sang most frequently was Leonora; the three major extracts from La forza del destino, recorded in 1928, are thus particularly treasurable and surely give a good impression of the voice as it was heard at her début. The ten-year passage of time has served only to enhance Ponselle’s dramatic expression, and if we are sadly unable to hear her sing with Caruso, her original Don Alvaro, we can still marvel at the voices of two other great Italians with whom she regularly appeared, Giovanni Martinelli and Ezio Pinza.

Elvira in Ernani was another of Ponselle’s Verdi rôles at the Met, one she first assumed in 1921. The aria ‘Ernani, Ernani involami’ is sung here together with its introductory recitative and (one verse only) cabaletta. The warmth and colour of the voice are wonderfully caught in this bravura piece, and the moods of its three sections display some of the splendours of Ponselle’s technique; hear the rich chest voice, superb rhythmic acuity, fine trill and pinpoint accuracy in the coloratura. I vespri siciliani was not in her repertory, but Elena’s ‘thanks’ aria has been sung by many a soprano who, similarly, found it to be a worthwhile showpiece in its own right. Technically, Ponselle brings all her customary flair, challenged only by some awkwardly low-lying notes and a skittering close, which seems not to have been emulated in any other singer’s recorded performance of the piece. The early Columbia pre-electric recording veils the listener from the full beauty of her resplendent tone, but cannot disguise the soft velvet timbre, which was the voice’s glory; (if only one could find some fresh epithets, but where Ponselle is concerned even the most excessive are generally inadequate).

Further Columbia and Victor sides offer four scenes from Verdi’s ‘other’ Leonora opera, Il trovatore. Indeed, the three pre-electric Columbias were recorded before Ponselle first sang the part on stage in April 1924; perhaps Gatti-Casazza needed persuading that she was suited to it and waited to hear the discs before offering her a contract for performances. Who knows? The glory of these discs is ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee’; this is the work of a fully mature artist, ripe, it might be judged, with years of operatic experience. That it is not so is astonishing. Similarly with ‘O patria mia’ from Aida. With this disc, one of Ponselle’s earliest surviving recordings, we are exactly two weeks away from her Met début. Undoubtedly, when she first undertook the complete rôle in 1920 her interpretation had grown beyond this gorgeous but as yet under-powered account. No, the treasure from the Aida extracts is the Nile duet with Martinelli. For some extraordinary reason these two sides remained unissued for over twenty years after they were recorded, but they capture the scene with rare clarity, the tenor’s trumpet-like tones contrasting vividly with the soprano’s plush opulence. The Tomb Scene finds them in equally fine form as their two voices merge in this most poignant of farewells.

So to Verdi’s last tragic opera, Otello. Ponselle never sang Desdemona on stage (how magnificent she and Martinelli would have been as part of one’s ‘dream cast’) but she has an instinctive feel for the music and brings an unrivalled pathos to the Willow Song and Ave Maria that even the limitations of the early recording techniques cannot obscure.

It is extraordinary and regrettable that, during those years when her career was at its peak, Ponselle made no commercial recording of a complete opera; and this at a time when Columbia and HMV were regularly releasing 78 rpm opera sets based on productions in Milan and elsewhere. But we can still relish the wealth of aria and ensemble recordings made in her prime, which confirm that everything they said about Ponselle’s voice was absolutely true.

Rosa Ponzillo was born in Connecticut in 1897, the younger daughter of Italian immigrant parents. After vocal studies at home she played piano in local ‘silent’ cinemas and later sang in music-halls and vaudeville shows with her sister. Within eight months of meeting her voice coach William Thorner, she made her début at the Metropolitan Opera opposite Caruso in La forza del destino, thus beginning a brilliant twenty-season career with the company, and prompting a name change to Rosa Ponselle. Her speciality was the Italian repertory (but never Puccini) including seven Verdi operas, and she scored major successes in Spontini’s La Vestale and Bellini’s Norma. In 1929 she sang the first of her three Covent Garden seasons and in 1933 gave just three performances in Florence; these were her only appearances away from the Met company during her career.

From the beginning Ponselle’s voice was admired for its glorious evenness of scale, formidable technique and rich timbre, but by the mid-1930s its glories began to fade and her attempts to sing Carmen, despite its lower tessitura, were embarrassingly unsuccessful. A disagreement over her chosen repertory at the Met led to a parting in 1937 and despite the company’s attempts to lure her back she decided that retirement was for her, at the age of forty. After marriage to the son of the Mayor of Baltimore, she lived the country life in a splendid home named after Leonora’s aria in La forza del destino — the Villa Pace. Ponselle occasionally gave recitals for friends and in 1954 made several private recordings, now commercially released, which demonstrate that her voice was still in excellent fettle. She maintained an interest in music and matters operatic into her old age, dying in Maryland in 1981 at the age of 84.

Paul Campion

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