Rosa Ponselle, who died yesterday at the age of 84, was one of the immortals. She was the first American-born and -trained singer ever to become a star at the Metropolitan Opera. When Enrico Curuso told her she looked like a street urchin she replied, "I don't care what I look like if I can sing like you." And when she made her debut opposite Caruso in "La Forza del Destino," in 1918, critic James Huneker called her "Caruso in petticoats."
Hers was one of the voices of the ages: golden from top to bottom and shaded with lights and shadows that glistened through the house every night she sang. Ponselle loved to talk about the great roles in which she became famous. "Norma was the most difficult of them all," she always maintained. "It was vocally, emotionally and dramatically the great demanding test." When she shifted to Gioconda, another of her most famous portraits, "I had a totally different voice." For that Ponselle delved into her limitless treasure house of rich sounds to bring out the deep chest tones needed for Gioconda's great scene, "Suicidio!"
She was world-famous as Aida, yet it was a role she sang only tw times in the Metropolitan Opera House. She explained the paradoxical situation this way: "The first time I ever sang Aida at the Met, my voice broke on the high C in 'O patria mia.' Always after that I was afraid of that passage. But on the Met tours, they always wanted Aida and we gave it to them." Ponselle sang Aida 12 times on the road.
Another role she sang rarely but with immense effect was Fiora in "L'Amore dei Tre Re," by Montemezzi. After singing it on an opening night at the Met in 1928, she sang it in London in one of her rare European appearances that were limited to Covent Garden and Florence. So great was the impact of her singing of that role that Ernest Newman, the leading music critic of Europe at that time, wrote, "Any divorce lawyer, hearing no more than Ponselle's first word, 'Ritorniamo,' would have granted the husband a decree nisi."
In singing, the ideal is a voice that can be called "seamless," from top to bottom: a voice in which no change is noticeable from the lowest note to the highest. Ponselle's was one of these rare treasures. To this extraordinary smooth range she added a coloratura technique that carried her through the rigors of Norma, Leonora in "Il Trovatore," and Rachel in "La Juive." She could sing a pianissimo high B-flat in "Gioconda" that left her listeners shattered, and the most demanding passages assigned to Donna Anna in Mozart's "Don Giovanni" in a manner that no one else has matched.
In 1937 Ponselle left the Met to marry Carle Jackson, the son of the mayor of Baltimore. The marriage lasted only a few years. But Ponselle, courted by the Metropolitan, refused to return unless she could do so in a new role, that of Adriana, in Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur." Told that the Met could not afford a new production of an opera that might not sell well, Ponselle refused to compromise, and at the age of 39, left the opera stage forever. For a few years she sang concerts and radio broadcasts. After that her golden voice was heard only by friends in the music room of Villa Pace, her home outside of Baltimore, which became a shrine to which the world's greatest singers came to visit one of the legends of the world of opera.