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David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2007

Born in the Connecticut in 1897, Rosa Ponselle and her older sister, Carmella, hit the big time in a vaudeville act in New York, but Carmella had the more ambitious intentions of singing opera and started taking vocal lessons. Left without a partner, Rosa decided she might as well follow Carmella's example. That might have been the end of the story if the First World War had not brought an end to the flow of Europeans to the Metropolitan Opera. The company had Enrico Caruso in the States ready for the American premiere of Verdi's La forza del destino, but no soprano. In a last desperate gamble to save the premiere the 21-year-old vaudeville singer Rosa Ponselle stepped in, and, as they say, the rest is history. She remained at the Metropolitan for 19 more years, coming to Europe in the late 1920's where she found audiences in Italy rather fickle, and decided to return home. She continued to sing to the age of 40 then surprisingly announced her retirement from the stage. Coming from an Italian family she had good diction for Italian opera which formed most of her operatic repertoire, but considering the brevity of her training she also had a flawless technique, unusually full in the lower register and going effortlessly to a high B flat. The present disc covers the period 1923 - 29 when the voice was in prime condition, the need to record ballads a requisite to reach a large audience. They are sung with immense artistry, the disc containing multiple takes of the same item some never published at the time. But it is when you reach the Gioconda excerpt that you fully realise the claim that she was the greatest soprano of all time. Dramatic, chilling and perfectly focused, buy the disc if only for that one track and you have spent your money wisely. You will have the added bonus of perfectly controlled coloratura in L'Africana. Though the orchestral sound is primitive and hardens at the top of Ponselle's range, the transfer magically gives us far more vocal quality than we could expect from that era.

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