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ClassicsOnline Home » PONSELLE, Rosa: American Recordings, Vol. 3 (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 twentyone
rôles throughout her
career. This third disc of
Ponselle’s 1923-1929 American
recordings features solo arias
from the great Verdi operas, the
complete ‘Tomb Scene’ from
Aida and a number of songs
that often appeared in
Ponselle’s recital programmes.
Schubert’s Ständchen is a
composite of two takes
unpublished on 78rpm found
by a collector in Cincinnati.
By David Denton
Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981)
American Recordings 1923-1929, Vol. 3
By 1926 the electrical recording process was firmly established as the industry standard. Its expanded frequency and dynamic range produced a more realistic sound, and allowed for subtle nuances in interpretation. Furthermore, the use of microphones allowed artists greater flexibility in performing. In the case of Rosa Ponselle, Aida Favia-Artsay noted that 'on the electric Victors her voice and dramatic perception are at their highest peak'.
In the Met's 1925-26 season Rosa Ponselle made her first appearance as Sélika in Meyerbeer's L'Africana with a cast which featured Gigli, De Luca and Rothier, conducted by Tullio Serafin. Among the comments she wrote about each rôle in my collection of Met programmes, Ponselle noted that L'Africana was 'a great box office attraction; good theatre … but not one of my favorites'. La Vestale which she sang on 12 November was another matter. Her comment written on the programme of the first Met performance was: 'A classic - loved it'. The audience and critics were also in agreement. Lawrence Gilman of the Herald Tribune wrote: 'Here was the youngest vestal who was obviously young. Here was a singer who could sing Spontini's long, gravely sculptured melodies with the required sense of line and dignity of style.' Half a year later Ponselle made her classic recordings of the two Vestale arias. (In 1933, at the first Maggio Musicale in Florence, she performed the rôle of Giulia in her only appearances in Italy.) Many years later Ponselle commented in an interview that 'Gatti wanted me to sing Norma, but I wasn't ready, so they gave me Vestale. I didn't know they were using it as a forerunner for Norma. I don't see any resemblance other than the classic line … but the range was much more comfortable.'
Ponselle went on tour with the Met, and closed the season on 5 May 1926 in Cleveland singing Aida, with Giovanni Martinelli as her Radames. Less than two weeks later the two singers met again in Camden where they recorded the complete 'Tomb Scene'. Their abridged 1924 acoustic recording, available on Naxos 8.111138, omitted the rôle of Amneris and the chorus. Ponselle regarded Aida as 'the greatest opera ever written', and recorded Aida's two solo arias, ' Ritorna vincitor' and ' O patria mia', that same week.
Ponselle and Lauri-Volpi (with De Luca, Matzenauer and Pinza) opened the following Met season with a gala performance of La Vestale on 1 November 1926. On 29 December she gave her first performance as Fiora in Montemezzi's L'Amore dei Tre Re. Three days later, on New Year's Day, Ponselle made her broadcast début on the Victor Talking Machine Hour.
This record also contains a number of songs that often appeared on Ponselle's recital programmes. Two of them were Caruso favourites – 'A vucchella and Luna d'Estate. Most agree that Ponselle's versions are quite worthy to stand alongside those of her mentor. A curiosity is the Ständchen, recorded as a duet with her sister Carmela. A collector in Cincinnati found two unpublished takes of this selection, both of which were damaged. The track here is a composite of the two. Interestingly enough, both sisters firmly denied having recorded together for Victor.
© Bill Park
This disc and its companion volume Naxos 8.111141 contains every known recording made by Rosa Ponselle for the Victor Talking Machine Company between 1926 and 1929. There are a total of eight alternative takes, of which only two were originally released on 78 rpm discs. In addition, two unpublished titles - Schubert's ' Ständchen' (with Carmela Ponselle) and ' O patria mia' from Aida - are included. Test pressings of these unpublished recordings were in the hands of a private collector, and a tape copy of these recordings was made for Rosa Ponselle in the 1960s. When this tape was made, the original test pressings were played at an incorrect speed (78 instead of 75 rpm), resulting in keys a semitone too high. (This tape was, in fact, used for an LP transfer which was also pitched incorrectly.) Although the whereabouts of the original test pressings are presently unknown, the tape copy made for Ponselle has been used, and the speed has been correctly altered to play at the correct pitch. The listener will notice from the discographic information that there are two versions of the Schubert Ständchen. On the original tape recording of Take 1 part of the last section of the song was accidentally erased, and Take 2 contained a severe crack which extended halfway into the original test pressing. Considering these flaws, I have combined the two takes to produce a complete performance.
I should also like to call the listener's attention to several defects on the original records. In the 'Tomb Scene' from Aida, one will notice severe sonic deterioration near the end of the third side (about two minutes into Track 2). I have no explanation for this fault on the original recording, and have tried to minimise this as much as possible. On several other discs a peculiar high pitched whistling sound appears at the end of a side. This sound is the result of the wax master cooling too quickly during the record cutting. As these recordings were made on heated wax masters, any ensuing delay resulted in the wax cooling before the recording was completed. This phenomenon only seems to occur in recordings made during the late 1920s (principally on Victors and Polydors, and occasionally HMVs). With the use of subtle equalisation and a notch filter, I have been able to mitigate this effect.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that Ponselle sings Tosti's ' Serenade' in the key of E major. Although she recorded this song in the original key of F major on her 1924 acoustic recording, she transposed it a semitone below score pitch when she re-recorded it in 1927.
VERDI: Aida: Tomb Scene (Act IV, Scene 2)
La fatal pietra - 17 May 1926; BVE 35459-3 & 35460-3 (Victor 1744 A & B)
O terra addio - 17 May 1926; BVE 35461-1 & 35462-2 (Victor 1745 A & B)
SPONTINI: La Vestale: Tu che invoco
18 May 1926; CVE 35464-I (Victor 6605 A)
SPONTINI: La Vestale: O nume tutelar
18 May 1926; CVE 35465-I (Victor 6605 B)
SPONTINI: La Vestale: O nume tutelar
18 May 1926; CVE 35465-2 (unpublished on 78rpm)
TOSTI: 'A vucchella 'Arietta di Posillipo'
18 May 1926; BVE 35466-2 (Victor 1164-A)
TOSTI: Luna d'estate
18 May 1926; BVE 35467-2 (Victor 1164 B)
19 May 1926; CVE 35469-I (Victor 6599B)
19 May 1926; CVE 35469-3 (Victor 6599B)
GOUNOD: Ave Maria, 'Meditation on J.S. Bach's Prelude in C'
19 May 1926; CVE 35470-2 (Victor 6599 A)
19 May 1926; CVE 35471-I & 2 (unpublished on 78rpm)
VERDI: Aida: Ritorna vincitor
20 May 1926; CVE 29063-6 (unpublished on 78rpm)
VERDI: Aida: O patria mia
20 May 1926; CVE 29061-6 (unpublished on 78rpm)
RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: The Nightingale and the Rose
2 June 1927; BVE 38857-2 (Victor 1456 B)
2 June 1927; CVE 29879-5 (Victor 6711 A)
13 June 1927; CVE 29876-6 (Victor 6711 B)
KAHN: Ave Maria
16 June 1927; BVE 38856-6 (Victor 1456 A)
VERDI: Ernani: Ernani! Ernani, involami
16 June 1927; CVE 29062-5 (unpublished on 78rpm)
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PONSELLE, Rosa: American Recordings, Vol. 3 (1923-...