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A golden sound, though stilled for 20 years


Twenty years ago this week -- May 25, 1981--- Rosa Ponselle died in her beloved home, Villa Pace, in Greenspring Valley. The soprano had outlived just about all her fellow stars of the "Golden Age" at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1920s and '30s, and also some legendary singers, like Maria Callas, who came along much later.

It was Callas who called Ponselle "the greatest singer of us all," a judgment that stands up strongly even more than 60 years after Ponselle retired from the opera stage. Today, when contemporary tastes in opera singing are so often determined more by effective marketing than by true vocal worth, her legacy looms all the larger.

The anniversary of Ponselle's death is a fitting time to be reminded of what it is that still makes her stand out in a field that has witnessed a lot of spectacular talent. As one of those spectacular talents, soprano Geraldine Farrar, put it this way: "When discussing singers, there are two you must first set aside: Rosa Ponselle and Enrico Caruso. Then you may begin."

It was with Caruso that Ponselle made her sensational Met debut in 1918, a remarkable achievement for a former vaudeville and movie house singer with virtually no formal training. In essence, Ponselle started at the top and stayed there.

When she left the Met in 1937, somewhat in a huff, the 40-year-old was still in exceptional form vocally. That the voice had many years left on it was startlingly revealed by a pair of commercial recordings made at Villa Pace in 1954. Friends who heard her sing in private settings when she was well into her 60s and even 70s were astonished by the quality of tone that she had somehow preserved.

Amazing talent

But then, Ponselle had been astonishing folks all her life. She revealed a mature sound by the age of 12, a secure technique by 14. In May 1918, when she was offered the Met contract, she had never been on an opera stage, let alone sung a complete operatic role. By December of that year, she had mastered six of them, from Leonora in Verdi's "La forza del destino" to Rezia in Weber's "Oberon." She went on to perform 16 more roles with the company.

Other than three seasons at London's Covent Garden and a single production at the Maggio Musicale festival in Florence, Italy, Ponselle confined her operatic appearances to the Met. That would have limited her fame had it not been for the microphone. Ponselle took to recordings as naturally as to the stage, and the phonograph took to her voice as gratefully as it did to Caruso's.

That recorded legacy, begun in 1918, has lost none of its original impact. Modern listeners may have trouble with the hiss, crackle and pop of 78 rpm records that even the finest compact disc transfers cannot totally eliminate, or the noisy aluminum and acetate discs that preserved Ponselle's 1930s radio broadcasts on "The Chesterfield Hour." But the rewards of exploring this trove cannot be overestimated.

While it would be hard for many opera fans to identify today's prominent sopranos in a blind listening test, it takes but a little exposure to Ponselle to have that sound firmly and forever imbedded in the ear -- uncommonly dark and voluptuous in the lower register, gleaming at the top; and a remarkably smooth transfer between those registers. Above all, there is an abundant dose of personality in the voice.

Whether delving into Bellini and Verdi arias or warbling popular ballads of the day, Ponselle gives the impression of a woman positively caught up in the sheer pleasure of singing. It's no wonder she developed such devoted fans during her career; audiences knew they could count on her total commitment to the vocal art.

That's not to say Ponselle was infallible. Her recordings of Puccini arias -- curiously, she didn't portray that composer's heroines onstage -- are not overwhelming. Her 1919 "Un bel di," from "Madama Butterfly," for example, sounds rather matronly and one-dimensional.

And some of Ponselle's interpretive ideas raise eyebrows. In two performances of Schubert's "Erlkonig," a radio broadcast from 1936 and a Villa Pace recording from 1954, she adds the same little histrionic cry of horror at the very end. It's about as far removed from Schubertian style as you could get, absolutely wrong stylistically. And yet, it works somehow. It's that personality thing again, Rosa being Rosa.

A fabulous example of this individuality is contained on a 1935 live performance of Verdi's "La traviata" from the Met with tenor Frederick Jagel and baritone Lawrence Tibbett. All three deliver white-hot vocalism, full of nuance and tonal richness, and Ettore Panizza conducts with a rhythmic elasticity I'd kill to hear in an opera house today.

Ponselle took heat from some critics over her version of the opera's heroine, Violetta; they were startled by the earthiness and strength of her portrayal (they had the same trouble with her Carmen later). This Violetta was certainly no shrinking, consumptive violet, but a woman determined to hold onto whatever she could of life and love.

Her determination to resist Alfredo's affection in Act 1 is as emphatic and persuasive as her total embrace of it in the next. And when she is later humiliated in public by her lover, this Violetta lets us know with sobs and wails exactly how much it hurts.

Personality in music

Not until Callas claimed this role in the 1950s, can you find as much mesmerizing personality fused onto Verdi's music. You don't have to accept everything Ponselle does with the part, but it's impossible not to be drawn into her flesh-and-blood concept. Gloria Swanson said Ponselle was the greatest actress she had ever seen on the opera stage. This "Traviata" performance makes it possible to see with the ears what Swanson was talking about.

In that unforgettable scene from the 1950 film "Sunset Boulevard," Swanson, as the forgotten silent screen star Norma Desmond, explains why she and her fellow pre-talkie colleagues didn't need dialogue: "We had faces!"

That line said it all, instantly conjuring up the indelible images of the truly great film actresses from the golden days of cinema -- Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford (another big Ponselle fan). We haven't seen the likes of them again yet.

Nor have we heard the likes of their counterparts in opera, the legendary sopranos who reigned in opera houses back when those film stars ruled the movie houses, and whose individual tones and singing styles were as indelible as the faces on those screens -- Tetrazzini, Farrar, Galli-Curci, Rethberg. The secret of their success can be explained with the same intensity that Swanson so colorfully delivered Desmond's line: "They had voices!"

And none of those voices was more magical or enveloping in tone, more brilliant or personal in delivery than that of Rosa Ponselle.

Finding her voice

On disc

Several Ponselle recordings have been released on compact discs, but their availability fluctuates. Here are some of the products well worth seeking out:

* On the Pearl label, "Rosa Ponselle: The Columbia Recordings" covers 1918 through 1924 and includes charming duets with the soprano's sister, Carmela, a gifted mezzo-soprano.

* Three Ponselle volumes on the Prima Voce series from Nimbus Records provide a superb survey of the singer's art. A three-disc set on the Romophone label featuring 1939 Victor recordings and the 1954 Villa Pace recordings (many of them previously unpublished) contains one gem after another. Interpretations of Schubert's "An die Musik," Wagner's "Traume," Strauss' "Morgen" and Tchaikovsky's "None but the Lonely Heart" are particularly telling.

* Several volumes of "Rosa Ponselle on the Air" from 1930s live radio broadcasts, released on the Marston label, require patience for their primitive sound quality. But the singing is invariably glorious, from "Carmen" arias that capture Ponselle's distinctive, juicy take on the heroine, to a melting "Danny Boy."

On stage

Stefania Dovhan, who won the gold medal at the 2000 Rosa Ponselle Competition, will give a free recital to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Ponselle's death at 4 p.m. today at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University Boulevard and Stadium Drive in College Park.

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