I have been posting some pianists, and while I am happy to do so, I begin to miss vocal music. So, as I wrote in the title, we are going back to basics. This means, at least to me, Ponselle and Callas.

In the Ponselle post, I gave a lot of information as to how I remastered one of her CDs so that the higher frequencies came out more. I have included one of those arias here, and compare it to Callas. I also have Callas singing another aria from La Vestale, and she conquers it in a way that only she could.

La vestale (The Vestal Virgin) is an opera composed by Gaspare Spontini to a French libretto by Etienne de Jouy. It was first performed at the Paris Opéra in Paris on December 15, 1807 and is regarded as Spontini’s masterpiece. The musical style shows the influence of Gluck and looks forwards to the works of Berlioz, Wagner and French Grand Opera.

Spontini had finished La vestale by the summer of 1805 but had faced opposition from leading members of the Opéra and rivalry from fellow composers. The premiere was made possible with the help of Spontini’s patron, the Empress Josephine, but only after being rearranged by Jean-Baptiste Rey and Louis-Luc Loiseau de Persuis. La vestale was an enormous success, enjoying over two hundred performances by 1830. Its fame soon spread abroad; it first appeared on the Italian stage in Naples in 1811, and it was performed in Stockholm in 1823. Important 20th-century revivals include the 1954 production at La Scala with Maria Callas in the title role, which was the first opera staging by the famous director Luchino Visconti. La vestale is famous in historical terms but is only very infrequently performed. Two of its arias (translated to Italian and recorded by Maria Callas and Rosa Ponselle), “Tu che invoco” and “O Nume tutelar”, are better known than the work as a whole.

Licinius arrives at the temple and he and Giulia re-affirm their love. The sacred flame goes out, which Giulia interprets as a sign that Vesta is angry and has condemned her unwatchful priestess to death. Licinius goes to summon his soldiers to rescue Giulia, who is then confronted in the temple by the Pontifex Maximus, Rome’s highest religious dignitary. Giulia confesses her unlawful love and resigns herself to her fate.

O Nume tutelar degli infelici
Latona, odi i miei prieghi
l’ultimo voto mio, ti muova,
ti muova o Nume
pria che al destin io soccomba
fa che dalla mia tomba
s’allontani quelli adorato oggetto,
per cui morte m’attende.

O goddess of unhappy wretches,
o Latona, hear my prayers;
let my last prayer move thee, o goddess.
Before I go to meet my fate,
grant that the one
for whom I die
may escape from this tomb.

Giulia, a priestess of Vesta in ancient Rome, loves the soldier Licinius who has achieved fame for his bravery in the wars against Gaul. Licinius is to be honoured in a triumphal ceremony, and Giulia has been chosen by the high priestess to place the victor’s wreath on his head. Giulia is troubled by her love for Licinius, which is forbidden by her sacred vows, but goes ahead with the ceremony, during which Licinius learns that Giulia must guard the sacred flame that night. Alone in the temple of Vesta, Giulia reflects on her plight, and, as the sacred flame grows dim, she prays that the gods may punish her and not Licinius for her transgression.

Tu che invoco con orrore,
dea tremenda, alfin m’ascolta:
questo misero mio core
fa che possa respirar.
Or che vedi il mio tormento,
le mie smanie, i miei contrasti,
deh! Ti basti. In me l’ardore
puoi tu sola dissipar.
Su questo sacro altare,
che oltraggia il mio dolor, fremendo io porto
la sacrilega mano. L’odioso
aspetto mio pallida rende tal
fiamma immortal: Vesta,
ricusi i voti miei;
e m’urta il braccio suo lungi da lei.
Amore, tu il vuoi, m’arrendo…
Ma dove porto il piè?
E qual delirio, ohimè!
miei sensi invade?
Invincibil potere
a’ danni miei cospira;
mi stringe, mi trasporta…
T’arresta: hai tempo ancor;
sotto i tuoi passi
la morte, O Giulia, stassi,
la folgor sul tuo capo…
Ma Licinio è colà…posso mirarlo…
favellargli, ascoltarlo,
e il timor mi trattiene?…
No, non più; del mio delitto
furore, amor, la pena han già prescritto.
Sospendete qualche istante
la vendetta, o crudi Numi,
finché possa il caro amante
coll’aspetto e i vaghi lumi
queste soglie consolar.
Poi sommessa alla vostra possanza
quesa vita fatal che m’avanza
sia l’oggetto del vostro furor.

Thou whom I call upon in terror,
fearful goddess, now hear me at last.
Grant that my abject heart
may breathe again.
Now that thou see’st my anguish,
my madness, my torment,
ah, let all that suffice. Only thou
can’st lessen my ardor.
To this sacred altar,
outraged by my sorrow, trembling I bring
my blasphemous hand. My hated face
makes the immortal flame
grow faint: Vesta
rejects my offerings;
she thrusts my arm away.
Love, thou hast willed it: I yield.
But where can I go?
What madness, alas,
invades my senses?
An invincible power
conspires against me –
Presses upon me, carries me away –
Cease! There is still time:
beneath your feet
lies Death. O Giulia,
over your head, the thunderbolt.
But Licinius is there – I could see him,
could speak to him, hear his answer –
yet fear holds me back?
No, no more. Love and madness
have already prescribed my punishment.
Withhold for one moment,
o cruel gods, your vengeance,
that my beloved,
with his dear face and eyes,
may light this temple.
Then, subject to your power,
what life is left me,
let it be the object of your wrath.

Ponselle

Early life

She was born Rosa Ponzillo on January 22, 1897, in Meriden, Connecticut, the youngest of three children. Her parents were Italian immigrants from Caiazzo, in the province of Campania. Ponselle had an exceptionally mature voice at an early age and, at least in her early years, sang on natural endowment with little, if any, vocal training.

Her sister, Carmela, was already an established singer in vaudeville after her debut in The Girl from Brighton, a 1912 Broadway musical. Three years later, in 1915, Carmela brought Rosa to audition for her vaudeville agent. In spite of being markedly overweight, Rosa impressed with her voice, and she was hired to perform with Carmela as a “sister act”. Between 1915 and 1918, the Ponzillo Sisters (also known as “Those Tailored Italian Girls”) became a headlining act on the Keith Vaudeville Circuit, appearing in all the major Keith theaters and earning a substantial income in the process. The sisters’ act consisted of traditional ballads, popular Italian songs, and operatic arias and duets.

In 1918, Carmela and Rosa demanded a substantial fee increase from the Keith Vaudeville Circuit, as a result of which their act was dropped. Victor Maurel, whom Giuseppe Verdi had chosen to create Iago in Otello, auditioned both sisters at his friend Thorner’s request. Soon afterward, Thorner persuaded the great tenor Enrico Caruso, star of the Metropolitan Opera, to his studio to hear Carmela and Rosa sing. Caruso was usually wary of amateur singers but was deeply impressed with Rosa’s voice. He arranged an audition for the Met’s general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, who offered Rosa a contract for the 1918/1919 season.

Metropolitan Opera debut and early operatic career

Rosa Ponselle made her Metropolitan Opera debut on November 15, 1918, just a few days after the Great War had finished, as Leonora in Verdi’s La forza del destino, opposite Caruso. It was her first performance on any opera stage. She was quite intimidated for being in the presence of Caruso, and in spite of an almost paralyzing case of nervousness (which she suffered from throughout her operatic career), she scored a tremendous success, both with the public and with the critics. New York Times critic James Huneker wrote: “…what a promising debut! Added to her personal attractiveness, she possesses a voice of natural beauty that may prove a gold mine; it is vocal gold, anyhow, with its luscious lower and middle tones, dark, rich and ductile, brilliant in the upper register.

In the following Met seasons, Ponselle’s roles included the lead soprano roles in La Juive (opposite Caruso’s Eléazar, his last new role before he died), 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, the title role in Bellini’s Norma. In addition to her operatic activities, which were centered at the Met, Ponselle had a lucrative concert career. A tour of the West coast included an appearance at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara on March 14, 1927 in the Artist Series of the Community Arts Association’s Music Branch, accompanied by pianist Stuart Ross.

Appearances abroad and later operatic career

Outside the USA, Ponselle sang only at Covent Garden in London (for three seasons) and in Italy (in order, so she said, to honor a promise she had made to her mother that she would one day sing in Italy).

Ponselle continued in the 1930s to add roles to her repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera. In 1930 she sang her first New York appearances in 1931 as Violetta, a role she had sung with such success in London, received a more mixed reception from the New York critics, some of whom found her interpretation too forceful and dramatic. (W.J. Henderson complained of her “assaults” on the vocal line.) In 1931 she sang in another unsuccessful world premiere, Montemezzi’s La notte di Zoraima, which sank without a trace. Like many other opera singers of that time, she made a brief trip to Hollywood and made screen tests for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount Pictures, but nothing came of them.

Differences with the Met management regarding repertoire led her not to renew her contract with the company for the 1937/38 season. Her last operatic performance was as Carmen on April 22, 1937, in a Met tour performance in Cleveland.

Retirement

Her marriage was rocky, and she and her husband divorced in 1949. The breakup was traumatic for Ponselle, and she suffered a nervous breakdown. Although she never again appeared on the concert or opera stage, Ponselle continued to sing at home for friends, who reported that her voice was as magnificent as ever. This was confirmed in 1954, when RCA Victor came to Villa Pace and recorded Ponselle singing a wide variety of songs. In the late 1940s, Ponselle became the guiding force of the fledgling Baltimore Civic Opera Company, providing coaching and voice lessons for the young singers who appeared with the company. Among those who coached with her during their Baltimore Civic Opera appearances at the start of their careers were Beverly Sills, Sherrill Milnes, Plácido Domingo, James Morris, and Joshua Hecht.

Death

Ponselle died at her estate, Villa Pace, near Baltimore, Maryland on May 25, 1981, aged 84, after a long battle with bone marrow cancer.

Callas

Maria Callas, original name Maria Cecilia Sophia Anna Kalogeropoulos, (born December 2, 1923, New York, New York, U.S.—died September 16, 1977, Paris, France), American-born Greek operatic soprano who revived classical coloratura roles in the mid-20th century with her lyrical and dramatic versatility.

Callas was the daughter of Greek immigrants and early developed an interest in singing. Accompanied by her mother, she left the United States in 1937 to study at the Athens Conservatory with soprano Elvira de Hidalgo. She sang locally in Cavalleria rusticana and Boccaccio and returned to the United States in 1945.

Her career began in earnest in August 1947, when she appeared in Verona in La Gioconda. Soon, under the tutoring of conductor Tullio Serafin, she made debuts in Venice, Turin, and Florence. In 1949 she first appeared in Rome, Buenos Aires, and Naples and in 1950 in Mexico City. Her powerful soprano voice, capable of sustaining both lyric and coloratura roles, was intensely dramatic; combined with her strong sense of theater and her scrupulously high artistic standards, it took her quickly to the forefront of contemporary opera talent. Her abilities made possible the revival of 19th-century bel canto works, notably those of Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti, that had long been dropped from standard repertoires.

Callas made her debut at the prestigious La Scala in Milan in 1950, singing in I Vespri siciliani. In 1952 she appeared at Covent Garden, London. Her American debut took place in November 1954 at Chicago’s Lyric Opera in the title role of Norma, a performance she repeated before a record audience at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Callas’s recordings were enthusiastically received, and she was one of the most popular singers of the period. Her much-publicized volatile temperament resulted in several protracted feuds with rivals and managers.

After a final operatic performance as Tosca at Covent Garden (July 1965), Callas made the film Medea (1969). In 1966 she became a Greek citizen and relinquished her U.S. citizenship. She taught master classes in opera at Juilliard (1972) before a last U.S. and European concert tour (1973–74). By the time of her retirement, she had performed more than 40 different roles and had recorded more than 20 complete operas.