Rosa Ponselle sings Italian Opera
Francis Toye said he had heard nothing to equal it, Ernest Newman praised it as the play of a fine mind upon a surpassingly beautiful voice, and veterans of the interwar opera seasons count it among their most precious memories. That was Ponserle's Traviata at Covent Garden. The American critics were less sure. Pitts Sanborn wrote of ''violent onslaughts on Verdi's melodic line'' and W. J. Henderson charged her with transforming a ''plaintively pathetic conception into hard-breathed tragedy''. This famous recording from the stage of the Metropolitan gives support to all these views. Vocally, much is exquisite; the opening of ''Ah, fors e lui'', ''Dite alla giovine'', the solo at the start of the great ensemble, her verse of ''Parigi, o cara'', the touching ''Se una pudica vergine'' near the end. In ''Un di felice'' and ''Sempre libera'' her scales staccatos and trills are well in place, and her highly individual timbre carries its own distinction throughout. But she also spoils some of the most keenly anticipated moments, notably the appeal ''Amami, Alfredo'' where a near-hysterical over-emphasis draws applause from the audience but leaves her admirers regretful as they listen to the record. Dramatically too she can be embarrassing, laughing too much in the Brindisi, responding all too willingly to Germont's encouragement to weep, and making so much noise during Alfredo's denunciation at the party that one feels unusual sympathy for him. Yet it is always a highly charged acting performance, and during her solo scene and the Act 2 duet she follows every development of thought and feeling with vivid expressiveness.
The performance is not only hers. Maestro Panizza likes an allegro to sound like one, and the orchestra play best when whizzing along rather than when the strings are given an opportunity for sentimental sliding. The Alfredo, Frederick Jagel, Brooklyn-born, Italian-trained, with over 25 years service at the Met where in 1948 he was their first Peter Grimes, sings with some stylistic refinement and a well-projected voice in music which I would say is not his by nature. Lawrence Tibbett the Germont, is nothing short of magnificent: his ''Pura siccome un angelo'' is the most perfect piece of singing, and his resonant, expressive tones are heard with gratitude whenever they appear.
He also seems to be the best recorded of the singers, and here we come to a matter which I think needed to be made quite plain in a prominent position on the front or the back of the CD box. The recording is not just bad by modern standards; it is bad, very bad in fact, for its own time. It was made privately and primitively from a broadcast, and I believe its preservation was highly providential. The ears take a fair battering; at worst, as in the dances and choruses of the party scene, it really is a most frightful din. Nor is Ponselle herself well recorded, and only intermittently can one recognize in the sound the voice which has come to be acknowledged as one of the century's very finest. This needs spelling out in fairness to everybody concerned. Somewhere in the booklet a further point should be made about pitch. Act 1 is up a semitone till ''Ah, fors e lui'' which is down by a semitone from score-pitch. ''Sempre libera'' fluctuates but by the end is one whole tone below score-pitch. If the recording was still running a semitone above performance-pitch that means that Ponselle transposed the aria by a tone, the cabaletta by a tone and a half. My belief is that she sang ''Ah, fors e lui'' down a semitone and ''Sempre libera'' a full tone, but that is only going by the sound of the voice, not from factual evidence. A smaller point: the date should be cleared up (May 1935 is given but I believe January 5th to be correct).
The fill-ups, the two famous studio recordings from Norma, will help newcomers to bring Ponselle's voice into focus (remembering always that those who heard her said the records did nothing like justice to the reality); but more apt and interesting might have been the interval-talks given by Geraldine Farrar included in the EJS 'private' edition by which the Ponselle Traviata first came to be known.'