'ROSA PONSELLE' -- The Columbia Acoustic Recordings (1918 - 1923)
'ROSA PONSELLE' -- The Victor Recordings (1926 - 1929)
Maria Callas said, "Ponselle was the greatest singer of us all," and Luciano Pavarotti described her as "The Queen of Queens in all of singing." Born in Meriden, Connecticut of Italian immigrant parents, Rosa Maria Ponzillo had little formal education, but she always wished to be a singer. She studied piano, and sang between films at the local movie house, performing popular songs of the day as well as operatic arias. She progressed to larger theaters, and prepared a vaudeville act with her sister Carmela that was highly successful. They were known as "Those Tailored Girls," ending up at the Palace Theater in New York. Baritone Victor Maurel happened to hear her, spoke of her to Enrico Caruso, and arrangements were made for her to audition for the Metropolitan Opera. The rest is history. She had seen only two operas (Butterfly with Caruso, Farrar and Scotti, and L'Amore dei tre re with Muzio and Caruso), before she made her operatic debut as Leonora in the U.S. premiere of Verdi's La forza del destino, with Caruso (three years before his untimely death), DeLuca and Mardones, November 18, 1918. It was one of the great nights at the Met, the beginning of an all-too-short career for the soprano who sang at the Met until 1937, retiring when still in vocal prime.
To separate her from her previous career in vaudeville, her name was changed to Ponselle. Her operatic career was almost exclusively at the Met, for the most part singing Verdi, she also was considered to be the definitive Norma. Her final Met performance was a concert March 14, 1937, after which she retired to her home, Villa Pace, north of Baltimore. Throughout her career she gave many concerts, recitals and radio performances. After her "retirement" she became artistic advisor to the Baltimore Civic Opera Company, enjoyed the good life, and did some teaching. She died May 25, 1981.
Hers was one of the most phenomenal voices in operatic history, rich, dark, even in tone and production throughout her entire wide range, capable of extraordinary agility, with sufficient power to carry to the highest balcony. And she had a stunning totally controlled trill - just listen to her recording of "Ernani, involami." Ponselle also had strong dramatic instincts which perhaps sometimes she carried to extremes, as can be heard in her histrionic but remarkable Violetta in La traviata (reviewed on this site). A Ponselle performance was a special occasion. Gloria Swanson, who wanted to be an opera singer, said that Ponselle was the greatest singing actress she had ever seen in her long life of attending the opera.
How fortunate we are in this era of CDs to have these remarkable sets of Ponselle recordings. The logistics of securing and transferring all of these rare disks are almost overwhelming -- but here they are. Rarest of all is the Pearl set of the Columbia acoustics (except for three which would not fit on these filled-to-capacity CDs), recorded from 1918 to 1923. These are superb transfers by Ward Marston whose attention to correct playback speeds is to be commended. Repertory is mostly operatic arias plus operetta and songs. It is remarkable how well Ponselle's voice recorded in front of the acoustic horn -- and sad that Caruso had an exclusive Victor contract and could not record with her. Why Victor did not record complete operas with her is one of the mysteries of the recording industry.
All three volumes are essential for vocal collectors, but if I had to select just one it would be the 1926-29 Victor recordings including her famous Verdi recordings (arias from Aida, Ernani, Forza, Aida), as well as music from Bellini's Norma, Spontini's La vestale, and a group of songs. Absolutely glorious singing of a quality not to be heard today.
R.E.B. (March 2000)