(January 22, 1897 – May 25, 1981)
Rosa Ponselle was an American operatic dramatic coloratura soprano with a large, opulent voice.
She sang mainly at the New York Metropolitan Opera and is generally considered by music critics to have been one of the greatest sopranos of the past 100 years.
Described as one of extraordinary beauty and voluptuousness.
In its richness and depth, it has been compared to port wine, maroon velvet and dark chocolate.
The voice was absolutely even in its scale, from top to bottom, with all vocal registers seamlessly integrated and no audible changes of gear.
Her legato singing was exemplary. She could sing at all dynamic levels, from a powerful forte to a gossamer pianissimo that carried to all corners of the opera house, and she could execute a perfect messa di voce in all parts of her range.
In her early years, she had a three-octave range from low C to high C. She possessed an exceptionally rich and mellow middle and lower register.
In weight and caliber Rosa Ponselle's voice was a true dramatic coloratura soprano, capable of encompassing all the demands of roles like La Gioconda and Norma. Although not a coloratura soprano in the mould of Tetrazzini or Galli-Curci, she had unusual flexibility for such a large and powerful voice and could negotiate fast scale passages with ease and accuracy.
She was a convincing actress sometimes accused of pushing drama and intensity "past the bounds of good taste". One can still hear something of this in a 1935 recording of La Traviata where in the denunciation scene Rosa Ponselle's Violetta sobs and cries out growing increasingly (and audibly) hysterical as Alfredo berates her.
Rosa Ponselle was in effect discovered while singing vaudeville with her sister by the legendary baritone Victor Maurel, whom Giuseppe Verdi had chosen to create his Iago in Otello.
On his say so, an agent called Thorner persuaded the great tenor Enrico Caruso, star of the Metropolitan Opera, to his studio to hear Rosa and her sister sing. Caruso was deeply impressed with Rosa's voice and he arranged an audition for her at the Metropolitan. The result was a contract for the 1918-19 season.
Rosa Ponselle made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Leonora in Verdi's La Forza del Destino, opposite Caruso and despite a severe case of nerves it was a huge success and the critics raved.
As well as Leonora, in that same season she sang Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana, Rezia in Weber's Oberon, and Carmelita in world premiere of Joseph Carl Breil's The Legend (a role and an opera that she detested).
In the following seasons at the Met Rosa Ponselle sang the leading soprano roles in La Juive, William Tell, Ernani, Il Trovatore, Aida, La Gioconda, Don Carlos, L'Africaine, L'Amore Dei Tre Re, Andrea Chénier, La Vestale, and in 1927 the role that many considered her greatest achievement - Norma.
Throughout her career she rarely sang outside the USA- only three seasons at Covent Garden and in Italy (she said, only to honour a promise she made her mother)
In London she sang Norma and Gioconda to great acclaim. The next time she returned to London (1939) she she sang Norma, L'Amore dei Tre Re, and La Traviata (the first time she played Violetta). The last time she was in London in 1931, she sang La Forza del Destino, Fedra (an opera by her coach and friend Romano Romani), and La Traviata.
In 1933 Rosa Ponselle sang her only performances in Italy, (La Vestale) in Florence. Again it was a huge success and although a contract with La Scala was mooted she was completely turned off by witnessing the brutal reaction of the audience to famous tenor, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, who cracked on a high note.
It was enough to send her back to the USA vowing never to sing outside the USA ever again.
Throughout the 1930s she continued to add roles to her repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera.
She sang Donna Anna in Don Giovanni to great acclaim in the 1930's but her first New York appearances as Violetta (that had been so successful in London) did not fare so well and received a mixed reception. Some criticised her interpretation as being "too forceful and dramatic".
Today we can probably understand better that it was a commitment to a role that was rare in the conservative days of the 1930's.
Like most singers of that time she screen tested for MGM and Paramount but nothing transpired.
She sang her first Carmen at the Metropolitan and that too recieved a drubbing from the critics.
In her last two roles at the Metropolitan she sang Santuzza and Carmen- roles that were not too taxing on her upper register.
The last performance of Carmen was in April 1937, in a Met touring performance in Cleveland. She was 40 years old, still in fine voice except for a slightly diminishing upper register and she was still hugely popular with the public.
While she officially never retired, she did let her career slip away. There had been differences with the management of the Met- they had refused to let her sing Cilea's Adriana Lecouvrer- a role she really wanted to sing, plus there was the issue of her fading upper register that made her signature roles too unnerving for her.
After she stopped singing her rocky marriage finally collapsed and she divorced in 1949. In the late 40's she became the guiding light for a fledgling opera company- the Baltimore Civic Opera Company.
She gave voice lessons and coaching to a group of aspiring young singers. In that group was a young Beverly Sills, Sherrill Milnes, Plácido Domingo and James Morris.
Rosa Ponselle passed away at age 84 after a long battle with bone marrow cancer.
Of her it was said: -
"When discussing singers, there are two you must first set aside: Rosa Ponselle and Enrico Caruso. Then you may begin." - Geraldine Farrar, soprano.
"In my lifetime, there have been three vocal miracles: Caruso, Ruffo and Ponselle. Apart from these there have been several wonderful singers." - Tullio Serafin, conductor.
"When you hear the voice of Rosa Ponselle, you hear a fountain of melody blessed by the Lord." - Mary Garden, soprano.
"The most glorious voice that ever came from any woman's throat." - Walter Legge, record producer.
"The greatest singer of us all." - Maria Callas, soprano.
"The Queen of Queens in all of singing." - Luciano Pavarotti, tenor.
Rosa Ponselle is one of the featured stars on our "Legends" product range.