In the first of our recent posts on Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, we included the magisterial aria, “Casta diva,” sung by Rosa Ponselle. Her Met debut is one of the astonishing Cinderella stories in the performance history of opera. And from that dazzling start she went on to become one of the unforgettable vocal artists of the last century.
Opposite the world-famous tenor Enrico Caruso in the Met’s very first performance of Verdi’s La Forza del destino (November 15, 1928) was a twenty-one-year-old soprano who had never had a voice lesson--let alone sung on an operatic stage. She had been born Rosa Ponzillo in Meriden, Connecticut in 1897 to parents who had immigrated from Caserta, very near Naples, Caruso’s home town. The first musician in a non-musical family was her beloved sister Carmela, ten years Rosa’s senior, who, discovered by the church organist, had studied music and eventually moved to New York to make her living as a café singer.
In the meanwhile, Rosa sought work as a pianist in local nickelodeons and occasionally as a singer in movie theatres. At age nineteen, she joined Carmela in New York. Together they formed an act promoted as “Those Tailored Italian Girls,” mixing popular songs, Broadway show tunes, and operatic arias. The sisters, both endowed with dark, smooth, flexible voices, were immediate hits and were soon propelled to the pinnacle of the vaudeville circuit, the Palace, where they commanded top dollar. Here they are in “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye,” recorded in December 1919. In this rendition, the familiar song becomes a vehicle for voices of operatic power exercised in authentic bel canto style. Note, in particular, the interpolated virtuoso cadenza redolent of Bellini.
But Ponslle aspired to a grander stage some blocks down Broadway from the Palace. In May 1919 her agent arranged for an audition with Caruso. She sang “Pace, pace” from La Forza del destino, in anticipation of the upcoming premiere of Verdi’s opera that fall. The great tenor, duly impressed, introduced her to the Met’s general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza. That she fainted during “Casta diva” did not discourage Gatti from contracting her for six operas (in only six months) for the 1918-1919 season, at $150 a week, considerably less than her fee touring in Keith’s vaudeville shows. She sang more than twenty times in five works, all of which she had to learn, including two Met firsts and a world premiere.
Here is Ponselle in “Pace, pace,” the glorious aria from her debut role. Still in love with Alvaro, the perpetrator of her cruel destiny, the solitary, penitent Leonora begs for peace. In this 1928 recording, at the peak of her career, Ponselle, ever alive to her character’s despair and agitation, varies dynamics and sustains phrases with rock-solid assurance and her accustomed tonal splendor. The crescendo and decrescendo of the opening note have rarely been matched.
Also in 1928, Ponselle recorded the last moments of La Forza del desino with her frequent superlative collaborators tenor Giovanni Martinelli and bass Ezio Pinza.