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The Incomparable Ponselle

Beverly Sills, who was a close friend, wrote: “ .. In my entire life I have never, ever, at any time heard a voice like that. Not ever . . . a heartbreaking, passionate, and beautiful voice the likes of which I know I will never hear again.

Maria Callas said, “I think we all know that Ponselle was the greatest of us all.”

In a letter to Rosa Ponselle(1897 – 1981) conductor Leonard Bernstien wrote, “Yours is the first operatic voice I ever heard, at age eight, on an old Columbia 78, singing ‘Suicido’. Even through all the scratchiness and surface noise, that voice rang through in such glory that it made me a music-lover forever. I thank you every day of my life.”

Her story is so improbable that if I didn’t assure you it was true, you would think I made it up. A young girl who had never set foot on an opera stage – and who had only seen two operas in her life – was singing in vaudeville with her sister. They auditioned for the greatest opera star in the world, who arranged an audition for her with the Metropolitan Opera, and a little over year later, at the age of 21, the girl was on the stage of the Met singing opposite Enrico Caruso. She sang for 17 seasons with the Met, becoming it’s biggest box office draw, then at the age of 39, retired and never appeared on an opera stage again.

Her name was Rosa Ponselle and she had what was probably the greatest dramatic soprano voice in recorded history. Here she is at the age of 21, less than a year before her Metropolitan debut.

When she auditioned for the Metropolita Opera, she had no way of knowing how lucky her timing was. World War I was in full force and most of the Italian and German sopranos of the time were not available. Additionally, the director of the Met, Giullio Gatti-Cassazza, had plans for a revival of Bellini’s Norma and had been looking for a soprano capable of singing this most difficult of coloratura roles. At that first audition, Gatti asked young Rosa to learn the aria “Casta Diva.” “Merely as a vocalise” he told her. She learned it – and fainted dead away after singing it for him at her second audition.

Ponselle’s voice was one of great power with extraordinary beauty and voluptuousness. It was rich and deep but flexible enough to sing exquisite trills and embellishments and then float the softest of pianissimos. Most soprano voices tend to “whiten out” and lose vocal color at the top of their range or darken in the lower register. Ponselle’s voice was absolutely even from top to bottom, never losing its richness or color and she had a commanding stage presence.

When Ponselle finally performed “Norma” at the Metropolitan in 1926, she set a standard of perfection, both vocally and interpretively, against which all past and future Norma’s have been judged ever since. Only Maria Callas in modern times approached her interpretively and no one has matched her vocally. Preparing for the role, Ponselle and mezzo Marion Telva spent two weeks in an isolated mountain cabin rehearsing their duet until they achieved a perfect blending of their voices.

Having begun her career singing on the vaudeville stage, Ponselle was comfortable singing the popular ballads and Broadway songs of the day as well as the more demanding works by classical composers.

Ponselle’s contract with Columbia precluded her recording with Caruso, who was with Victor Records, but she sang with him in several operas. When he died, her most frequent partner on stage became Giovanni Martinelli, who had a rather dry voice but was a great favorite at the Met. Together they made what stood as the definitive recordings of Aida until Zinka Milanov and Jussi Bjorling recorded the opera 30 years later. NOTE: this is the complete Tomb Scene and runs 12 minutes.

After triumphant performances in La Traviata, La Giaconda, and finally Norma, Ponselle stood alone as the leading prima donna of the Met. She took an entire year studying for her next opera, Carmen and it was a great box office success, selling more tickets than any Met production of the year. The critics were generally kind, but one, Olin Downes, wrote a devastatingly personal attack which hurt her deeply. She did, however, make a screen test of “Carmen” for MGM.

Meantime, Ponselle’s mother had recently died, new management at the Met was cutting salaries, and she had just married for the first time. When the Met refused to produce the opera “Adriana Lecouvuer” for her, it seemed like the last straw and a personal insult. Ponselle, without officially retiring, simply withdrew to her home, Villa Pace, and never again appeared in an opera.

She continued perform on radio and in concerts after her retirement, even making a few recordings in 1939. Possibly encouraged by her reception after making a rare public appearance singing the national anthem at the Republican National Convention in 1952, she agreed to sit at the piano in Villa Pace and make a series of self-accompanied recordings for RCA in 1954 when she was 57 years old. The voice had darkened and, without the constant exercise of daily vocalization and performance, her top notes were carefully controlled now, but the Ponselle sound remained glorious.

Her personal life was as unsatisfactory as her professional life was rewarding. Her marriage ended in divorce in 1949 and was followed by a nervous breakdown. Her close relationships with her sister and brother deteriorated over time into bitter accusations and jealousies, followed by reconciliation but with lingering pain.

Rosa Ponselle died at age 84, having spent the previous 44 years coaching and guiding aspiring young operatic talent. Among those schooled in Ponselle’s home in Maryland’s Greenspring Valley, or who were coached for roles or launched by her in their professional careers, are Placido Domingo, Raina Kabaivanska, Adriana Maliponte, Sherrill Milnes, Samuel Ramey, Leontyne Price, Louis Quilico, Beverly Sills, and William Warfield.

In 1928, with bass Ezio Pinza, she made a recording of “La Vergine Degli Angeli” from La Forza del Destino which came as near to perfection as anything she or anyone else ever did.

Your comments or questions are welcome.