Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Friday, October 20, 2017

Rosa Ponselle, 2: An American Diva

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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.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Rosa Ponselle: Becoming an (American) Diva

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound.

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.