WHEN THE curtain rose in the old Metropolitan Opera House on the night of Nov. 15, 1918, Rosa Ponselle stood before an opera audience for the first time in her life. She was 21 and her tenor was the most famous in the world, Enrico Caruso. The opera was "La Forza del Destino" -- "The Force of Destiny" -- by Verdi. In the first scene, the stage was "flooded with brilliant moonlight -- the only other light in the room being provided by a couple of candles in old silver candelabra." In the second act of the opera, the heroine is given refuge by a community of monks.
Ponselle sang Leonora in "Forza" more often than any other role in her entire career.
Thus the irony is all the more strange -- even by the extravangant standards of opera -- that 62 years later she should find herself caught in an agonizing personal twist of fate (The Force of Destiny?) not unlike that faced by Leonora.
It began last Christmas Day, as she sat watching helplessly while flames engulfed much of her palatial estate in Green Spring Valley near Baltimore. The fire began late in the day as Ponselle and her friends were celebrating the holiday which has, in years past, been the occasion for gala open house parties at Villa Pace. The first days afterward Ponselle, like Leonora, was given refuge by a community of nuns living across the road.
And on one recent evening, as the daylight faded from the gentle rise of ground where her house stands, Ponselle again was lighted only by moonlight and the glow of candles. For that terrible fire destroyed the electrical system in the house. Now, at 83, one of the finest of all singers is waiting amid the remains for the insurance company and her lawyers to come to some agreement about the amount of damage done to the Villa Pace by the fire that raced through its rooms. She and her friends eat together in the servants' quarters, and she sleeps in a kind of impromptu bedroom arranged for her on the first floor.Estimates have ranged from $350,000 to $500,000 to restore the Mediterranean-styled home to its former beauty.
When her home was built in the late 1930's, Ponselle named it Villa Pace after the first word of Leonora's famous aria in the last act of "Forza," which begins "Pace, pace mio Dio." ("Peace, peace, my God"). In a stone tablet set into the frame around her front door are carved the two Fs on which the word "pace" is sung. Completing the symbolism, each note is set in a rose.
The mahogany-paneled library, where the fire apparently began in short-circuited wiring, is completely gutted. The oil painting of her mother, which stood for more than 40 years above the mantel, was burned to ashes. Elegant silver vases, pitchers and dishes were melted into shapeless mounds. The deep red velvety furniture, which Ponselle had covered with plastic to protect it from the maraudings of her beloved dogs and cats, went up in the smoke and flames.
The fire department, called three times, had trouble finding the house, which is reached from Green Spring Valley Road. The damage was widespread by the time it arrived.
Ponselle's sumptuous bedroom was a total loss. The trompe l'oeil ceiling over the central foyer is miraculously intact, though damaged, protected now by a plastic covering, and waiting for an Italian specialist who knows the secret of restoring it.
Though life is not easy, it does not stop for Rosa Ponselle. It has not since that day in 1918 when she and Caruso sang a Verdi opera the Metropolitan had never previously presented.
On Friday, May 16, at its commencement, the University of Maryland conferred an honorary doctor of arts degree on Ponselle. The citation said, "Rosa Ponselle's career is legendary and revered virtually without any dissenting voice, an unusual situation in the world of performers. Her voice was [and is -- she can still illustrate the lasting wonders of that instrument] a true Verdi soprano, dark, rich and evenly scaled, capable of the entire technical gamut. It was an ample voice, utterly seamless, sinuous, exquisitely modulated and with control of breath that leaves the listener breathless in wonder. Legato scales and chromatics up or downward ran like golden ball bearings, smoothly as through invisible oil."
At the College Park campus on the 16th, the noted Metropolitan Opera contralto, Lili Chookasian, accepted the degree for her longtime friend and mentor. Then later that afternoon a few of Ponselle's closest friends gathered around her on the sunlit terrace of her home, presented her with the doctoral hood, and cheered as the citation was read.
Many of the world's great opera singers have made special pilgrimages to Ponselle's house to visit and to listen to the recordings, private and public, that document much of her career. Rosa Raisa, the "other Rosa," who sang much of the same repertoire in Chicago that Ponselle sang in New York City, once stayed at Villa Pace for four days. During that time it would have been correct to say that the two greatest dramatic Verdi sopranos of the first half of the century were together under a single roof.
On another visit, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf listened raptly to Ponselle's recording of "La Traviata," taped from Met broadcasts, and wept at the beauty of what she heard.
A few weeks ago Luciano Pavarotti talked about Ponselle to his ardent audience at a National Press Club luncheon. "Driving down from New York to Washington, I stopped at Rosa Ponselle's home. Here is this incredible artist -- she sang with Enrico Caruso. . . .
"You know, when she made her debut opposite Caruso, the level of musicality at that time was not what it is today among many singers. But in her home I listened to that glorious voice, and she was playing the piano for herself on the recording. She was singing a Sicilian folk song and she was entering into the song so deeply that it was more than beautiful. I wept . . . I wept," said one of today's greats.
There is an indomitable will in Ponselle today that sustains her in a time of trouble. On occasion she speaks slowly, almost inaudibly. But remind her of a phrase in "Gioconda" in which she soared to a high pianissimo B flat, which she held as she slowly walked offstage -- "I made the conductor go very slowly at that point" she said last week -- and as she spoke, her voice was again firm, filled with the unmistakable resonance that has always been hers. "Enzo adorato -- ah, come t'amo," she said and she was again la Gioconda , smiling in the face of threats and personal loss and tragedy.