VERDI: La traviata
Rosa Ponselle, soprano (Violetta); Lawrence Tibbett, baritone (Germont); Frederick Jagel, tenor (Alfredo); Elda Vettori, mezzo-soprano (Flora); Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orch/Ettore Panizza, cond.
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110032-33 (2 CDs) (M) (AAD) TT: 63:36 & 66:38 


Rosa Ponselle's Violetta in La traviata is legendary, although she sang less than two dozen performances of it. The first were three performances at Covent Garden in 1930; beginning the following year she sang 19 performances at the Met, both in New York and on tour. She enjoyed enormous success in the role, and it is surprising that she never recorded any of the arias from it. The role of Violetta is of extraordinary difficulty; there are few sopranos who can negotiate the coloratura of the first act and dramatic elements of the final acts. Ponselle was able to do this, although she did transpose the first act arias.

The Met broadcast of January 5, 1935 was unknown for years until it was discovered that Lawrence Tibbett's widow had the broadcast recorded; the many acetates were found in a closet. The booklet accompanying the Naxos set gives a story of how they were discovered, but not the correct one. Years ago a friend of mine, Dr. A. F. R. Lawrence, who was a specialist in historic vocal and orchestral recordings, came into possession of the acetates. He telephoned Ponselle from New York and she was excited by the news. Another friend, Hugh Johns, was at Ponselle's Villa Pace home at the time, and related her excitement when she heard a bit of it played over the telephone. Lawrence immediately sent her a tape. She called him back the next day saying it was wonderful except that the tape speed was wrong—the act one arias were not properly pitched. He told her they were, but she was insistent, so he prepared another tape on which he increased the speed towards the end of the first act, which made her coloratura absolutely unbelievable (it already was spectacular as originally recorded) and made tenor Frederick Jagel sound like a castrato! Ponselle told me once that she knew how she sounded and that the up-speed version was correct—surprising from one of the greatest sopranos of all time, who often carried a tuning fork with her. It was the improperly adjusted recording that originally was released on private LPs and CDs; Naxos here has the correct speed.

The performance has its flaws. Lawrence Tibbett is superb; Frederick Jagel barely adequate. Ponselle's interpretation is vivid and assured. She has no technical problems whatever, and dramatically is thrilling. She is "over the top" histrionically in her reaction to Alfredo's denunciation, more than carried away, but with singing of this calibre it doesn't matter. A major plus is the dynamic conducting of Ettore Panizza, a protégé of Arturo Toscanini at La Scala. This is such a dynamite performance one could easily think the Maestro himself was on the podium.

The set includes commentary by Milton Cross as well as an intermission talk by Geraldine Farrar. A synopsis of the plot is included but no libretto. Intriguing evaluations of this broadcast by Paul Jackson and John Steane are included, as well as brief bios of the principal performers. Perhaps future pressings will correct the statement that Rosa Ponselle died in Dallas in 1976; she died in her home in Villa Pace near Baltimore May 25, 1981. Possibly Naxos has her mixed up with Lily Pons, who died in Dallas in 1976. For copyright reasons Naxos "Historical Immortal Performances" opera recordings are not sold in the United States, but they are readily available elsewhere.

R.E.B. (Oct. 2000)