Rosa Ponselle & Shirley Verrett

Rosa Ponselle & Shirley Verrett
Rosa Ponselle

            When I began investigating Rosa Ponselle’s voice I proceeded from the assertion, raised by Professor Spears, that some people always considered Ponselle to be a mezzo-soprano rather than a dramatic soprano. I discovered through my investigation of her 1937 performance of Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera, Nimbus Records Ponselle, Volumes 1&2, RCA Victor’s Rosa Ponselle, and The Radio Years that, in my opinion, this was resoundingly not the case. Ponselle’s interview with Jerome Hines on singing technique, as well as some of my own observations, however, offer a suggestion of how this might have seemed the case. Reviews from the time support these claims.

            I actually began my investigation with the 1937 Carmen. Unfortunately this was the only full role I could find, a pity given my ultimate conclusion that Ponselle was truly a soprano, not a mezzo. Two of Carmen’s key pieces, however, the Habañera and the Seguedilla immediately demonstrated a key element of the puzzle. Ponselle’s chest voice seemed very impressive in these pieces. Whenever she dropped into it the sound was full, rich, and smooth, lacking the often harsh quality many sopranos have in the range. In a role such as Carmen, this sound only helped to characterize the role. Ponselle mentions to Hines that she did use chest voice, but she kept it resonant and in the mask. While I in no way doubt Ponselle’s forward resonance in the range, I do think that she had an unusually dark tone quality which, despite the evident break from the rest of her voice, perhaps gave her a quality of sound seemingly more in line with that of a typical mezzo-soprano. Above this range there did seem to be a very small range in the voice that exhibited a quality of darkness, something that can be seen throughout her Carmen and, to a lesser extent, on her recordings of soprano arias. She mentions to Hines to always keep the voice dark using an oo vowel in the lower register, something recommended to her because of a naturally bright sound. This may account for this small range with unique tonal quality. For higher notes, however, she describes a different technique of keeping a square in the back of the mouth to promote high resonance. In sum, Ponselle’s natural range, unusual chest voice, and personal technique in lower registers gave her the ability to venture into mezzo-soprano repertoire with unique interpretation but do not mark her as an actual mezzo-soprano.           

Ponselle’s recordings of soprano works fall into roughly four categories: typical dramatic soprano, lyric soprano (though these are sparse), soprano pieces requiring coloratura, and art song. The surprising realization that I had as I listened to these pieces was that they all, more or less, possess the same tone quality. Admittedly there are slight differences of course, between Casta Diva and Un bel dí vedremo, but the differences come more from the style of music than from any change in Ponselle’s singing. As she suggests to Jerome Hines, her sound was naturally highly placed, using a slight but not over pronounced smile. What was fascinating about these comparisons, however, was not how dark or powerful the voice sounded, but how bright, resonant, and present it sounded. A rendition of the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria,” for instance, has the same bright, almost gossamer tone present in “Ritorna Vincitor” or “Vissi d’arte.” Unquestionably Ponselle was able to vary dynamics to a great extent, and I believe that many of the recordings do not do justice to this given the time in which they were recorded. Still, her more robust arias made use of both loud and soft dynamics and never drifted into a very dark tone. In some ways this technique is actually reminiscent of that (at times, at least) of Maria Callas. It seems trite to suggest, but it is almost as though Ponselle had a natural sense of bel canto singing and applied it to everything rather than using a bel canto technique, a Mozart technique, a Wagner technique, a verismo technique, etc., as often seems to be the case today.

            As a side note, there is a vast range of repertoire represented on these CDs, including Verdi, Verismo, Wagner, Bel Canto, Mozart, “classical” and foreign art song, and more modern art song in English. As suggested Ponselle handles each with a roughly similar technique that produces a roughly similar sound. The changes in tone quality are due more to range, and even then only at the lower extreme and in the chest range, than they are to repertoire. All of the reviews that I found through the London Times and the New York Times seem to support the artist’s versatility. Some reviews did call into question Ponselle’s dramatic interpretation of her roles and her selections in some recitals. I was fascinated to see how much shouting and screaming was considered appropriate at the time in the finale of Carmen, for instance. No reviews, however, called into question Ponselle’s ability to both premiere La forza del destino and to also sing Donna Anna or Violetta – without formal training. 

Shirley Verrett

            If the question was whether Rosa Ponselle was actually a mezzo-soprano instead of a dramatic soprano, the question for Shirley Verrett was the opposite. Considering two singers in a week inevitably begs comparison, and I did find some similarities between the two singers. For instance, Verrett’s chest voice was also quite pronounced and developed. What surprised me most about Verrett, however, was a sense that her singing in dramatic soprano roles actually had a darker, fuller tone quality than her singing in mezzo-soprano roles. I investigated her in the context of Hine’s interview as well, reviewing a live 1987 recording of Il trovatore under Richard Bonynge, a live 1978 recording of Tosca under James Conlon, a 1976 studio recording of Macbeth under Claudio Abbado, and Shirley Verrett in Opera, which contains primarily mezzo-soprano arias. One possible conclusion about Verrett’s career is that her ability to switch between roles was largely predicated on development rather than consistent flexibility, though she exhibited both.
            I began by listening to the compilation album because I felt it would give me a good sense of Verrett’s work as a mezzo-soprano. Immediately upon listening to the first three tracks, “Amour, vien rendre á mon âme” from Orfeo ed Euridice and “Sposa a Percy” and “Per questa fiamma indomita” from Anna Bolena I did a double-take, asking the two questions, “is this a mezzo voice?!” and “is this a heavy, dramatic voice?!,” sentiments that continued with the Donizetti from La favorita Certainly later in the compilation she tackles more vocally substantial pieces by the likes Berlioz, Massenet, and Verdi, as well as the seminal “Mon couer s’ouvra á ta voix.” What I found, however, was a flexible, almost light-sounding voice. There was a sheen and a brilliance that I did not expect. Certainly with voices like those of both Rosa Ponselle and Shirley Verrett it is important to recognize that even a dark voice would still retain squillo and ring. With Verrett, however, the tone did not present this kind of dark depth often described as “smoky” or even “sultry” that is stereotypical of mezzo-sopranos and dramatic voices. The coloratura in the bel canto repertoire also represented a flexibility that these kinds of voices often do not possess, especially with the ease and seeming effortlessness Verrett presents.

            Listening to Verrett as Azucena for comparison I found that her work in a full role was more or less similar to the Verdi on the recital disc, if perhaps a bit darker and larger. The interesting thing about this, however, was that the recording I was using was toward the end of Verrett’s career in the late 1980s. This is especially interesting given Verrett’s interview with Hines. She makes very clear in that interview that she felt that while she had to begin her career as a mezzo-soprano, she was always really a dramatic soprano and that she was most suited to repertoire for that voice type. She also expresses frustration at the expectations of voice type based on range and tone. It is not surprising that she continued to switch between the two voice types, especially toward the end of her career. What is intriguing, however, is that even in these big Verdi mezzo-soprano roles, at both the beginning and end of the career the voice remained bright and forward (though she did not like that technical term) rather than dark and more voluminous in tone.
            What was shocking about examining Verrett in the soprano roles she undertook, particularly Lady Macbeth and Tosca, was that I found the opposite tonal change compared to what I expected, a change from light to dark instead of from dark to light. I actually felt like the production was weightier, more shaded by the deep throbbing of a dramatic voice. In her performance as Tosca, for instance, her first scene where she both accuses and also reconciles with Cavaradossi demonstrated this depth, more extensive use of chest voice, and timbre more tinted with scuro. I found the same results in her performance as Lady Macbeth. The easiest explanation for this is that the compilation CD’s recordings, made in the 1960s, represent a much younger artist still working with lighter, less mature instrument with future dramatic potential and executing arias with fewer extremes of range and a lower tessituras. As the voice developed into the 1970s and 1980s and Verrett took on dramatic soprano roles, she might have grown into her range and timbre. What this does not entirely explain, however, is the shift back to a lighter production at the sunset of her career back in the role of Azucena. It could be she simply did not need the weight to execute the role. It could be that something changed again at that late stage. Regardless, the counterintuitive shifts in weight in Verrett’s voice were fascinating.

            Reviewers generally seem to have been very positive about Verrett’s performances in opera. A few were critical about her ability to render more reserved artistry for songs, but that seems expected, especially outside of the relatively more limited song repertoire appropriate for dramatic voices. Reviewers did definitely remark on her shift between repertories, recognizing her soprano roles as great achievements. There was no apparent criticism of the switch of suggestion it was inappropriate. On the note of reviews, I was very impressed with Verrett as Tosca. Perhaps it is that I was able to watch this as a video. Perhaps it is the conventions of the time or some other factor, but of the performances given by the four voices I have studied thus far this term, Verrett’s Tosca has been the only one to truly strike me. The performance possessed both the nuance of love and the passion of hatred and then grief that characterize the role. Verrett’s voice will certainly be one I will continue to investigate, whether as a mezzo-soprano or a soprano, and I hope to collect some recordings of her for myself in the near future.


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