LP0404. CARMEN, Live Performance, 17 April, 1937, Cleveland, Ohio, w. Gennaro Papi Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Rosa Ponselle, René Maison, Julius Huehn, Hilda Burke, etc. 3-Metropolitan Opera Historic Broadcast Recordings MET 7. Producer: Dario Soria; Audio Engineer: Tom Owen, R & H Archives. The packaging is in the style of the deluxe RCA Victor Soria Series releases - velvet-covered slipcase edition with an inner box that holds, in addition to the records, an elaborate beautifully-illustrated booklet with background on the opera's Met history by Francis Robinson, James A. Drake, George Cehanovsky & Gerald Fitzgerald. photos and biographies of the artists, plus a second booklet containing a libretto with translation. Produced by RCA in 1979. Excellent, ever-so-slightly used copy may have been played once!
"Carmen was the last role taken on by Rosa Ponselle in her two-decade Met career. Her portrayal was very controversial at the time and has remained so. Olin Downes, chief music critic at the New York Times, savaged her, which reportedly hurt the singer deeply. He began, 'We have never heard Miss Ponselle sing so badly, and we have seldom seen the part enacted in such an artificial and generally unconvincing manner'. The review did not go uphill after that. Audiences, on the other hand, loved Ponselle's Carmen at the time, and music lovers and critics have been split ever since.
In FANFARE 3:6 I reviewed the Met's own reissue of Ponselle's final appearance with the company, on tour in Cleveland on April 17, 1937 [above]. Although I thought the overall performance suffered from end-of-the-tour fatigue, I was extremely positive about her.
For those readers who love detail, here is the history of Ponselle's Carmen performances at the Met. I reproduce it here in part to show how much experience she had with the role, and how many opportunities she had to make subtle adjustments in her portrayal by the time of this 1937 broadcast. All performances listed below took place at the Metropolitan Opera House unless otherwise specified.
12/27/1935 - Martinelli, Burke, Pinza; Hasselmans (Ponselle's role debut)
1/6/1936 - Kullman, Burke, Pinza; Hasselmans
1/14/1936 - Kullman, Burke, Pinza; Hasselmans (Hartford)
1/25/1936 - Martinelli, Burke, Pinza; Hasselmans
1/28/1936 - Martinelli, Bori, Pinza; Hasselmans
2/1/1936 - Kullman, Fisher, Pinza; Hasselmans
2/12/1936 - Maison, Mario, Pinza; Hasselmans
2/25/1936 - Maison, Fisher, Pinza; Hasselmans (Brooklyn)
3/14/1936 - Maison, Fisher, Huehn; Hasselmans
3/28/1936 - Maison, Fisher, Pinza; Hasselmans (Boston)
4/4/1936 - Maison, Burke, Huehn; Hasselmans (Baltimore)
1/9/1937 - Rayner, Bodanya, Huehn; Papi
1/21/1937 - Maison, Bodanya, Huehn; Papi
2/15/1937 - Maison, Bodanya, Huehn; Papi (Her final performance at Met)
4/17/1937 - Maison, Bodanya, Huehn; Papi (Cleveland)
Thus, the performance under review is the 12th of 15, three of which have survived in recorded form (Feb. 1, 1936, Jan. 1, 1937, and Apr. 17, 1937). After the Cleveland performance Ponselle did not officially retire. She simply never returned, in part because of her anger that General Manager Edward Johnson would not stage ADRIANA LECOUVREUR for her (similar to the battle Tebaldi had with Rudolf Bing over the same opera, although he eventually relented).
It is, of course, possible that between the opening night reviewed by Downes and the 12th performance a year later Ponselle refined her interpretation and grew more comfortable in the role. I hear no hints of any of the issues that he (and other critics) raised. To be sure, if your view of CARMEN is that it must be performed in a restrained, delicate, so-called French style, this performance in the grand manner may not be for you. Ponselle throws herself into the music and the drama without restraint. As I said in my 1980 review, 'She bellows in anger, whispers and croons seductively'. (A vivid sample can be viewed on a YouTube video of Ponselle singing and dancing the 'Seguidilla' and 'Habanera' that is quite unforgettable.) Her Carmen is, to these ears, convincing, gripping, and gorgeously sung. The voice was still in superb condition in 1937 (she was a few weeks shy of her 40th birthday), producing an even column of sound from top to bottom. Her low notes were, perhaps, richer than those of any other singer not identified as a mezzo or contralto, and there were no audible register shifts. Additionally, there is a grandeur and richness to the tone that immediately stamps it as a voice you must engage with as a listener. Ponselle could (and often does here) sing softly with delicacy and a seductive quality. She could also overwhelm with raw power. She was a force of nature, and that is surely not inappropriate for the character of Carmen. Even if there are other ways to sing this music, you will be very much poorer if you haven't heard her performance.
Julius Huehn (yet another American) is perhaps at an unfair disadvantage because we know he replaced Ezio Pinza as Escamillo, and he simply cannot compare. Huehn fails to bring the requisite swagger to a role where we really do want to hear a ringing bravado. His Germanic training (he was most at home in Wagner during the 1930s and 40s at the Met) did not really prepare Huehn to be a convincing toreador.
In sum, here is a performance of monumental importance. Ponselle's studio recordings rarely represent her at her best. RCA's dry, closely miked sound and the lack of inspiration from a live performance make those studio efforts a poor substitute for the real thing. Fortunately, the real thing is available in this CARMEN as well as in a Met TRAVIATA from the same period. They are thrilling as only a great operatic performance can be."
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE