Rosa Ponselle On the Air 1934-36
In the 1930s, at the height of the Depression, with millions unemployed, the Americans weren’t going to the opera very much – the Met was regularly half empty. Nor were they buying many records; they were, however, smoking. Chesterfield’s, one of the leading tobacco manufacturers, sponsored a weekly radio programme and a frequent guest on it was Rosa Ponselle. According to John Ardoin, who has written the notes to accompany this set, Ponselle herself said these off-the-air recordings were a more accurate record of her singing than her studio-made discs.
The sound is variable, there is a good deal of hiss and some distortion, but the familiar Ponselle style comes across loud and clear. It seems quite extraordinary now, but Ponselle made no commercial discs between 1930 (when she was at the very peak of her career) and 1939, when, just after her marriage, she was about to retire. Her singing is generous, emotive, a bit over the top sometimes in slight songs such as Ponce’s Estrellita or Serradell’s La golondrina. She has no difficulty crossing over to operetta, with Der tapfere Soldat (‘The Chocolate Soldier’) and The Merry Widow, since her stage career had begun in vaudeville. The only opera extracts here from roles she sang on stage are from Carmen, Cavalleria rusticana and Romani’s Fedra.
The strength of her voice posed problems for the engineers, but by moving the broadcast microphone away from the orchestra, they were able to capture something of the energy and power of Ponselle’s singing that she felt was absent from her earlier 78s. A lot of the material is ephemeral, but in a trifle like The Sleigh by Kountz one gets a vivid glimpse of her agility – it was one of the thrills of Ponselle’s singing that such a huge voice had such a facility with coloratura passages, and that she could fine down the tone to wonderful pianissimos.
The sentimentality of many of these songs, such as Bartlett’s A Dream or Bond’s I love you truly would be completely beyond the scope of most modern singers, but Ponselle’s directness lifts them above kitsch. It is sad that she didn’t include arias from some of the operas she was singing at the Met at the same time – Don Giovanni (she was Donna Anna, of course, but here sings Zerlina), Luisa Miller or Andrea Chenier. As it is, this collection offers a fascinating souvenir of this great singer in her prime, communicating with an audience, hundreds in the studio, millions sitting by the wireless.