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ClassicsOnline Home » PONSELLE, Rosa: American Recordings, Vol. 2 (1923-1929)
Described by Maria Callas as‘the greatest singer of us all’, the
American-born Rosa Ponselle
(1897-1981) is acknowledged as
one of the outstanding dramatic
sopranos of the twentieth
century. Without any previous
experience of the operatic stage,
she made her Metropolitan
début in Verdi’s La forza del
destino opposite Caruso in 1918.
Following her enormous success,
she became the Metropolitan’s
leading soprano, appearing in
twenty-one rôles throughout her
career. This second disc of
Ponselle’s 1923-1929 American
recordings features two of her
loveliest performances, In
grembo a me from L’Africaine and Suicidio! from La Gioconda,
as well as three of her first
electrical recordings, The Little
Old Garden, Carry Me Back to
Old Virginny and My Old
Kentucky Home, made on the 1st
and 2nd June, 1925.
By David Denton
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.
Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981)
American Recordings 1923-1929, Vol. 2
While visiting Lily Pons at her Dallas home in early May 1962, I asked if she were planning to attend the Met performance of La forza del destino later that week. The diva's large brown eyes grew wide, and she answered an immediate, emphatic 'No!' 'Why should I go to Forza?', she inquired. 'I heard Rosa Ponselle as Leonora!'
Lily Pons's admiration for Ponselle's voice and artistry has been echoed many times by other singers and musicians, and this great popularity continues today through the amazing phonographic legacy she left. Ponselle's records reveal a voice of richness and power, a dark, exciting colour so unmistakable, combined with a formidable coloratura technique. Yet Ida Cook, the author of We Followed Our Stars , who heard her in person, wrote: 'Occasionally on record one catches a breath of the magic that was Ponselle - particularly the Vestale record, the final Trio from Forza , the finale of Aida and the rare Africana record. I remember distinctly that when we could hear her in person, my sister and I put away our Ponselle records because they were such a pale shadow of the real thing.' But those remarkable discs continue to win new generations of fans who take on faith 'the dramatic gift of almost equal intensity [to her extraordinary vocal power] and stage presence' described by Cook.
Rosa Ponselle was born Rosa Ponzillo on 22 January 1897 in Meriden , Connecticut , the third child of first-generation Italian immigrants, Bernardo and Maddalena Conti Ponzillo. Rosa 's sister Carmela was born in June 1887, and her brother Antonio in June 1890. (In a 1977 interview, however, 'Tony' insisted that the age difference between the two sisters was six, not ten, years.) Each of the children studied the piano with a local teacher, Anna Ryan, but Rosa never studied voice formally.
Rosa's first job was as a substitute pianist and singer in the Crystal Theater in Meriden in 1912. Following her engagement there, the customers of the rival Star Theater in Meriden began to dwindle because they preferred to hear Rosa singing at the Crystal Theater . As a result, Richard Halliwell, the owner of the Star Theater, approached her and offered to double her salary if she would sing in his three theatres. In one of these, the San Carlino in New Haven , Rosa sang popular songs of the day for Yale students as well as Italian songs, accompanied by an orchestra which performed Rosa 's own instrumental arrangements. James Ceriani heard her at the San Carlino and soon hired her to perform in his Café Mellone. He compared her voice to that of Emmy Destinn, and took Rosa to her first Met opera performance - Tosca with Caruso and Farrar. On the same trip to New York she had an audition with Gene Hughes to become part of a 'sister act' with Carmela in vaudeville. Rosa sang ' Kiss Me Again ' from Mlle Modiste and got the job.
Rosa's début in vaudeville (with Carmela as 'the Ponzillo Sisters') took place at the Star Theater in the Bronx in September 1916. Two years later they were featured at the Keith Riverside, and on 29 October 1917 they gave their first performance at the prestigious Palace. Billed as 'Two fascinating Italian girls with Grand Opera voices', they gave a total of twelve performances. Appearances at other theatres followed, and their last known vaudeville performance took place at the Colonial on 13 April 1918 (interestingly, by this time their billing had changed from 'the Ponzillo Sisters' to 'Rosa and Carmela Ponzillo').
As a result of Rosa's meeting with Caruso and the now famous three auditions for the Met, she signed a contract on 4 June 1918 to sing the rôles of Aida, Leonora (in both Trovatore and Forza ), Santuzza, Rezia and the soprano part in Verdi's Requiem at the Met. On the advice of Gatti-Casazza, to avoid her association with vaudeville, she adopted the name of Rosa Ponselle. The young soprano spent the summer in Pine Orchard, Connecticut , where she prepared her rôles under the guidance of the conductor and composer Romano Romani.
Ponselle's historic début in Forza alongside Caruso took place on 15 November 1918. A review in The New York Times the following day is headlined: 'Rosa Poncelli [sic] Captivates - Young Soprano Debutante Displays a Sweet Voice of Natural Beauty - Caruso Sings Gloriously.' In the heart of the review the distinguished critic James Gibbons Huneker wrote: 'Added to her personal attractiveness, she possesses a voice of natural beauty that may prove a gold mine; it is vocal gold, anyhow, with its luscious lower and middle tones, dark, rich and ductile.'
In her next rôle as Santuzza with the Met in Philadelphia , the Bulletin reported: 'The new soprano has a "presence" and an aptitude for operatic interpretation that at once is apparent. Best of all, however, she disclosed a voice of splendid capabilities, of fine range, volume and beauty, a pure dramatic soprano, of a full, rich and even quality.' Of her Rezia in Oberon on 28 December 1918 The New York Times mentions 'her dramatic temperament, musical intelligence, with her beautiful natural voice and its remarkable range from a rich, velvety contralto to a vibrating, silvery soprano … Her scale is seamless, so equal are her tones from top to bottom.'
With each new season Ponselle's artistic growth continued. In 1919 she appeared as Carmelita in The Legend and Rachel in La juive opposite Caruso. Huneker stated that 'there are only two beautiful voices in the Metropolitan Opera Company and Rosa Ponselle's is the other one' (the other, of course, being Caruso's). Aida and Elisabetta ( Don Carlos ) followed in 1920; Maddalena ( Andrea Chenier ) and Elvira ( Ernani ) in 1921; Margared ( Le roi d'Ys ) in 1922; and Mathilde, ( Guillaume Tell ) and Sélika ( L'Africana ) in 1922. In late November 1923 Ponselle appeared in Havana , Cuba , for two recitals. Musical America described her programmes as 'including arias by Ponchielli and Rossini, and songs by Paisiello, Schumann, Fourdain, Strauss, Ganz Alvarez and others'. Less than two weeks later, on 5 December 1923, Ponselle was in Camden, New Jersey, to make her first records for the Victor Company. (The soprano always 'blamed' her manager William Thorner for having her initially sign with Columbia rather than the more prestigious Victor label, but it is probable that Romani, who was a conductor for Columbia , was also involved in the decision. Ponselle's last recordings for Columbia on 11 and 14 January 1924 - a month after her first Victors - were to fulfil her contractual obligations to Columbia for a specific number of titles.)
A second journey to Victor for more recordings was made on 11 December 1923, and less than a week later she made her first seasonal appearance at the Met as Maddalena in an Andrea Chenier which included Gigli, Ruffo and Tibbett (Ponselle had, in fact, auditioned Tibbett at the request of Frank La Forge when she visited Hollywood for the first time in May earlier that year).
She added Leonora in Il trovatore to her Met repertoire on 19 April 1924, and concluded the season in the same rôle in Cleveland on 3 May before sailing for the first time to Europe three weeks later. Her priorities for the trip were 'clothes, study and amusement'. In Viareggio she met Puccini and sang Vissi d'arte for him.
In the Met's 1924-25 season Ponselle first appeared in a 29 November matinée as Maddalena. On 7 December she participated in the company's Puccini Memorial Concert singing Un bel dì . Twelve days later she appeared in the title rôle of La Gioconda . The New York Times wrote: 'Miss Ponselle, as her admirers expected, found the melodrama's title rôle suited to her rich voice and temperament that is this young American star's heritage. She was greatly applauded, bringing down the house when soprano and tenor before the curtains played a game of tag to see which would leave to the other the honor of taking a solo recall.'
The new year was begun with Aida on 2 January 1925, followed in rapid succession by Sélika and Gioconda. Two arias from the latter rôles, In grembo a me from L'Africana and Suicidio from La Gioconda , were recorded for Victor on 14th January, and are surely among Ponselle's loveliest and best performances on disc. In April she again joined the Met on tour, singing favourite rôles in both Atlanta and Cleveland .
On 11 March 1925 the Victor Company officially dedicated its newly equipped studio for electrical recordings. Less than three months later, on 1 June, Ponselle was in the studio to make her first recordings using this 'new' process. Only one of the items recorded at this first session - The Little Old Garden (also known as Sanctuary ) by John Hewett - achieved publication and that occurred more than twenty years after the record was made. At the session the following day, however, she successfully recorded the two songs which made up her first electric double-sided 'Coupling' - Carry Me Back to Old Virginny and My Old Kentucky Home .
© Bill Park
11 April 1924; C 29876-1 (unpublished on 78 rpm)
11 April 1924; C 29876-2 (Victor 6453 A)
MONRO-HIGGINS: My lovely Celia
11 April 1924; B 29877-2 (Victor 1057 B)
DE CURTIS: Carmè
11 April 1924; B 29878-2 (Victor 1013 B)
DI CAPUA : Maria, Mari!
11 April 1924; B 29411-4 (Victor 1013 A)
12 April 1924; C 29879-1 (Victor 6453 B)
12 April 1924; C 29879-3 (unpublished on 78rpm)
PONCHIELLI: La Gioconda: Suicidio!
14 January 1925; C 31709-1 (Victor 6496 A)
PONCHIELLI: La Gioconda: Suicidio!
14 January 1925; C 31709-2 (unpublished on 78 rpm)
MEYERBEER: L'Africana [L'Africaine]: In grembo a me [Sur mes genoux]
14 January 1925; C 31710-1 (Victor 6496 B)
MEYERBEER: L'Africana [L'Africaine]: In grembo a me [Sur mes genoux]
14 January 1925; C 31710-2 (unpublished on 78 rpm)
HEWETT: The Little Old Garden
1 June 1925; BVE 32850-2 (HMV VA 67)
BLAND: Carry Me Back to Old Virginny
2 June 1925; CVE 32856-3 (Victor 6509 A)
FOSTER: My Old Kentucky Home
2 June 1925; CVE 32857-1 (Victor 6509 B)
BISHOP: Home, Sweet Home
3 June 1925; CVE 32866-2 (HMV VB 74)
BLAND: A Perfect Day
3 June 1925; BVE 32867-1 (Victor 1098 B)
FOSTER: Old Folks at Home
4 June 1925; CVE 32865-3 (IRCC 126)
FOSTER: Old Folks at Home
4 June 1925; CVE 32865-4 (HMV DB 872)
DUPONT: La Rosita
4 June 1925; BVE 32851-5 (HMV VA 69)
NEVIN: The Rosary
5 June 1925; BVE 32864-7 (Victor 1098 A)
DI CHIARA: La Spagnola
5 June 1925; BVE 32873-2 (HMV VA 69)
5 June 1925; BVE 32852-5 (HMV VA 67)
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PONSELLE, Rosa: American Recordings, Vol. 2 (1923-...