[Met Performance] CID:118130

Metropolitan Opera House, Fri, December 27, 1935

Debut : Hilda Burke

Carmen (328)
Georges Bizet | Henri Meilhac/Ludovic Halévy
Rosa Ponselle

Don José
Giovanni Martinelli

Hilda Burke [Debut]

Ezio Pinza

Thelma Votipka

Helen Olheim

Marek Windheim

Angelo Badà

Louis D'Angelo

George Cehanovsky

Ruthanna Boris

Betty Eisner

Madeline Leweck

Anatol Vilzak

Louis Hasselmans

Désiré Defrère

Joseph Urban

Costume Designer
Gretel Urban [ballet only]

George Balanchine

Rosa Ponselle's costumes were designed by Valentina.
Carmen received sixteen performances this season.

Review 1:

Review of Danton Walker in The New York News


Anticipated for months by the palpitating columns of the daily press, heralded for weeks by word of mouth and announced finally by flaming posters outside the Metropolitan Opera, the long-awaited revival of "Carmen," with our own Connecticut-born Rosa Ponselle as its bright particular star, arrived last night. And it is this reporter's happy privilege to tell you in no uncertain terms, that as the castanet-playing, hip shaking she-devil of Merimee's tragedy, our Rosa went to town in as high, wide and handsome a production of the Bizet opera as it has ever been my joy to witness. The more pedantic among the critical fraternity may, and probably will, tell you this morning that our Rosa's characterization was a bit vulgar. So what? If Carmen wasn't vulgar, what was she? A factory girl who discovered that sex was her trump card and who played it-to her own destruction-wouldn't be, in the words of Bert Lahr's song, "definitely too, too refrayned, but definitely." She was a roughneck first to last, with a bawdy wit and a native gayety which most of the Carmens miss, but which our Rosa suggested superbly.

She was, in short, somewhere between Calve and Castagna, and the best Carmen I've seen and heard since Maria Gay, some of whose business she had absorbed. Not surprising since La Gay was seated in Ponselle's dressing room during the opera, egging her on. (Another Carmen, Geraldine Farrar, was applauding her from the first row).

Time and space prevent too detailed an account of this brilliant production in which Ezio Pinza was the Toreador par excellence, and the American ballet again displayed its rugged individualism by staging unorthodox but dazzling dances, and director Johnson, going Salmaggi several better, introduced no less than eight horses into the final scene.

Ponselle's clothes deserve a chapter all their own. In the second act she was divinely slim in a dancing costume of cardinal red and in the final episode, topping a black velvet ensemble that made the Diamond Horseshoe gasp, she affected a yellow wig-Spaniards, in general and bull-fighters in particular, being traditionally fond of blondes.

Hilda Burke made her quite satisfactory debut as the mealy-mouthed Micaela, but more of her anon. Giovanni Martinelli, much too grand and rotund for the part of Don Jose, was the only definite piece of miscasting in an otherwise bang-up production, conducted with understanding by Louis Hasselmanns.

Review 2:

Review of W. J. Henderson in The New York Sun


Rosa Ponselle gratified another ambition last night at the Metropolitan Opera House. She sang Carmen in her own particular way and was vociferously glorified by what is technically described as "a large and brilliant audience." Miss Ponselle is nothing if not various. She can bow reverently before tradition when she desires as she did in "Norma" and "La Vestale," and she can blow tradition into a thousand fragments as she did in "La Traviata." Whatever she does, she is Rosa Ponselle and has the world by the ear.

She has been loudly applauded for her impersonation of the gilded courtesan of Verdi's opera. And last night she was approved as the impersonator of an operatic personage who William Winter would have called a 'trollop.' Unfortunately she has been ill and was under a strain so that her performance was possibly thrown out of balance. However, it will probably transpire that her conception of the character and her reading of the music will be fundamentally the same in future representations as they were last night. What may disappear are some of the distortions of rhythm, the exaggerated ritardandi, the extravagant morbidezze, the overwrought action and the utter lack of repose in places where it would have been dramatically telling. All these defects might justly be attributed to nervous stress and overanxiety to make points.

Operagoers of experience and memories will hope that when Miss Ponselle sings Carmen again she will be able to enrich the vocal delivery with a more sensuous quality of tone, that she will show respect for the letter of the score, and that she will find a way to portray the seductiveness of the gypsy more graphically than by the employment of more externals of feeble accomplishment. Her "habanera" was ragged, but in the circumstances that was not remarkable. Her dance in the second act would better have been reduced to a shadowy outline than exposed in such pitiless detail. The best pure singing she did was in the card scene and her most eloquent phrase during the evening was "toujours la mort." When she appears again in Bizet's opera she may demonstrate that she knows quite well that success in "Carmen" is not to be reached merely by ceaseless movement and by eccentricities in the treatment of the music.

It was not a brilliant 'Carmen." Hilda Burke made her debut with the company singing Micaela in a rather keen and cutting tone and with no impressive revelations in matters of style or interpretation. She, like Miss Ponselle, was applauded loudly and long by an audience which seemed eager to make demonstrations after all final cadences. Mr. Martnelli deserved thanks for his economy of tone, his fidelity to pitch and his general style, though his voice was not as mellow as the music needed it to be. Mr. Pinza was a stalwart and industrious Escamillo, and on the whole was acceptable in the part.

Review 3:

Review of Olin Downes in The New York Times:

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. Her first act was more carefully composed than what followed. It had less exaggeration, fewer mannerisms, some interesting detail and clean diction. She used a little of the spoken dialogue of the original version of the opera with good effect, but already showed a cheerful disregard of laws of good singing for which she has won richly deserved eminence. She also played fast and loose with time and with rhythm, and to this to an extent unnecessary for any genuinely expressive purpose.

It appeared that Miss Ponselle had determined at any cost to quality of tone, to pitch, to vocal style, to be "dramatic". This unfortunate intention only served, of course, to defeat the very ends it was designed to promote. Especially from a voice and such an artist are these methods unnecessary and inadvisble, for Miss Ponselle is primarily a singer and secondarily an actress, and not all her efforts put her in the dramatic frame.

Her dancing need not be dwelt upon, although in the inn scene it raised the question whether Spanish gypsies preferred the Charleston or the Black Bottom as models for their evolutions. The sum of her acting was affected, overdrawn, often inept. There was bad vocal style, carelessness of execution, inaccurate intonation. The principal virtue of this figure was its slimness, for Miss Ponselle has heroically reduced, and is now a tall and personable gypsy. That is her Carmen's principal distinction.

Review 4:

Review of Lawrence Gilman in the Herald Tribune

Rosa Ponselle sings "Carmen" at the Metropolitan for the First Time

One by one the great ladies of the lyric stage, as well as their lesser sisters, succumb to the lure of Carmen. They always have done so; doubtless they always will. It is hard to realize that Lilli Lehmann essayed the part (Mr. Krehbiel records that her Carmen was "matronly" in aspect and "military" in bearing-a some-what formidable picture.) It is harder still to believe that Patti sang the role.

Miss Rosa Ponselle, the latest of Bizet's conquests, succumbed to the irresistible Friday night at the Metropolitan, in the presence of an audience immense in size and aquiver with curiosity; and we beheld the great Norma of recent memory garbed and accoutered as the gypsy cigarette-maker, rejoicing in her Habanera and Seguidilla, ensnaring the sentimental brigadier and the toreador of the sure-fire ditty. It should be said without further ado that Miss Ponselle in her first engagement with the baffling role achieved an intelligent and workmanlike performance. Rosa of the sumptuous voice is no sensationalist, no brainless experimenter in the treatment of new roles. She is a serious and thoughtful artist, obviously intent upon re-creating the character she would bring to life.

But purpose and sincerity and intelligent application are one thing. and an evident predestination is quite another. One is forced to assume that Providence did not intend that Miss Ponselle should be one of the more credible of Carmens. She set before us Friday evening one that was vividly conceived, alive at every moment; one that moved from point to point in the psychological unfolding of the character without too obvious a change of gears. And there was much in her physical embodiment of the role that realized its character and aspect. Here was a Carmen triumphantly slender and supple - Miss Ponselle must displace at least 50 per cent less of atmosphere than she did when we last beheld her at the Metropolitan; and this alone is a major triumph, deserving of wreaths and testimonials.

But it is not enough for Carmen to insist that she is a bad, bad girl: we know she is, and Miss Ponselle should have put less emphasis upon Carmen's roughness and more upon making unremarkable her powers of seduction. For a Carmen whose seductiveness is not convincing from the start has either fixed her attention upon an element of secondary importance in the part, or she has undertaken a rôle for which Nature did not fit her.

Mme. Galli-Marié, the original Carmen, was dissatisfied with the entrance music that Bizet had provided in the first act, and she made him rewrite it a dozen times before she would accept it. She wanted "something audacious," a song "in which she could bring into play the whole battery of her "perversités artistiques"-caressing tones and smiles, voluptuous inflections, killing glances, disturbing gestures." Probably it is not within Miss Ponselle's power to suggest allurement; perhaps "perversités artistiques" are not included in her armory of weapons. But it would have helped things Friday night if she had been careful to impart to Bizet's music the fullness of its expressiveness and fascination. Often she was careless of rhythmical effect; or she sang melodic intervals which would have been somewhat astonishing to Bizet, could he have heard them. A sure and sensitive mastery of the music of Carmen is essential to a realization of the part - as even Calvé learned, to her sorrow, in the declining end of her unique career.

It is not unlikely that Miss Ponselle and Carmen will grow more intimate as time goes on. The admirable artist whose Norma is already a classic masterpiece may conquer even those obstacles which Heaven has set in her advancing path. We may yet see her with her eyes "voluptuous and wild" - as Mérrimée envisaged the original Carmen, that Carmen with the "gypsy eye, wolf eye," of which the Spanish proverb speaks. Meanwhile, let us watch and wait, saluting, for the present, an artistic effort that is brave and engrossing, an achievement that all students of Bizet will surely wish to examine and assess.

Photograph of Rosa Ponselle in Carmen by Wide World Studio.

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