Wednesday, November 30, 2005


Critic, teacher, broadcaster and mentor Edward Downes is speaking to me in his living room in 1995:

I suppose the earliest great memory I have of the Metropolitan New York was Rosa Ponselle singing in the 1927 revival of Norma. I was lucky in being able to attend the dress rehearsal. People who have her recordings know that Ponselle was a very great Norma, but that dress rehearsal, the first time anyone heard that splendid voice in Bellini's opera, was was unique. I knew I would not hear the like of it again, and I tried to attend every performance of Norma that season. I knew absolutely from the Casta diva, which she sang in F instead of G, that this was extraordinary singing.. At the end of the first part of Casta diva, in the descending chromatic scale coming down an octave and a half, every note was perfectly articulated and had a sense of flow of this gorgeous sounding voice. It was the kind of sound that just hits you in the midriff.

Rosa Ponselle remained a great favorite of mine, as did Feodor Chaliapin.
He was fabulous. In some cases he took great liberties with the score, but his interpretations were so powerful that this scarcely mattered. Like Ponselle, the sheer natural sound of Chaliapin's voice was very beautiful. I remember hearing him at the Met and thinking at the time, who else has such a beautiful voice?
There was a good deal of ranting and raving in Boris Godunov. But when he sang for beauty of tone he had it, not only in the middle range where it was beautifully controlled, but even in the high pianissimi which are not easy for a bass. With all the emphasis I can summon I can say that Chaliapin's was among the most beautiful voices I ever heard live. I heard him in two roles. Boris and Massenet's Don Quichotte. This last was written for Chaliapin and characterized by critic Lawrence Gilman as " piece of junk" and I'm quoting him charitably. But Chaliapin had you in tears at Quichotte's death. He was also an extraordinary make up artist, extending not only to his character of the spindly, aged Quixote, but to the skinny old horse, Rosinate. I remember my father telling me about Chaliapin as Rossini's Don Basilio in Barber of Seville, blowing his nose through his fingers and mopping his face with a filthy old handkerchief which trailed out of his costume. Chaliapin on stage tried to do things to deliberately grab the audience, and he succeeded!

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