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In our previous post, “Rosa Ponselle: Becoming an (American) Diva,” we sketch the beginnings of Ponselle’s astonishing musical journey. Here we continue our evocation of her storied operatic career.
There had, of course, been many American divas before Ponselle’s 1918 Metropolitan debut, among them Lillian Nordica, Emma Eames, and Geraldine Farrar. These and other predecessors had a key formative experience in common: all had performed on European stages, most had European training. Ponselle alone was entirely home grown; the Met was her conservatory. Her operatic appearances elsewhere included only a handful of performances in London and Florence, and these came late in her career. Despite her success abroad, her fear of foreign audiences never left her and she was quick to make her way back to New York.
In her nearly two-decade-long Met tenure, Ponselle took on more than twenty roles, including the world premiere of an American opera and seven company premieres in the Italian, French, and English repertoire. The most lasting of these firsts expanded the Verdi corpus to encompass La Forza del destino (see our previous post), Don Carlo, and Luisa Miller. She was also the Elvira in the 1921 revival of Ernani, which had been absent from the Met since 1903. One reviewer put it this way: “It is a matter of wonder at that she can sing this music lightly and rhythmically, yet in full voice with the timbre of a dramatic singer.” And wondrous is her execution of Elvira’s opening aria, “Ernani, involami,” replete with incisive recitative and passages of florid singing that explore the limits of the soprano’s range. Here, in one of the most prized Ponselle recordings, her rich, dark voice articulates a long-breathed trill that would be the envy of a light coloratura in, say, Lucia di Lammermoor.
Ponselle never sang a Puccini role. Mimì and Cio-Cio-San were unsuited to the size and color of her voice; Tosca was the property of Maria Jeritza in the 1920s and early 1930s; Manon Lescaut belonged to Lucrezia Bori and Frances Alda. In 1923, she did however record Manon’s “In quelle trine morbide.” The soprano’s seemless legato captures the protagonist’s realization that she has exchanged the precious love of the impoverished student Des Grieux for the empty luxury of her rich protector Geronte.
In her final Met years, Ponselle was driven to Carmen by her interest in the role, of course, and also by her insecurity at the top of the range. Audiences loved her, not so the critics who complained of the liberties she took with Bizet’s rhythms and who carped at her outsized gestures. Hollywood, on the other hand, alive to the diva’s popularity, was intrigued. Two decades earlier, Geraldine Farrar had become a moving picture star in a pre-talkie “Carmen” (see our post of January 4, 2017). The trite “home hither” postures of Ponselle’s gypsy, captured in this test, were a bad omen. In any case, as reported by Peter G. Davis in The American Opera Singer, the artist sabotaged her chances at M-G-M by demanding an outrageous fee.
A 1937 Met Carmen on tour in Cleveland was Ponselle’s last hurrah. You can hear it on Youtube. Her voice still sumptuous, she retired early to Villa Pace, her Maryland home. She was only forty.