The curse of 'Carmen' struck Rosa Ponselle Accident: The famous soprano, singing the role at her Baltimore debut in 1936, fractured a bone in her arm.

Remember When

April 05, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The opera "Carmen," like the drama "Macbeth," has a well-earned reputation as an unlucky vehicle for the actors and singers who dare perform it.

Superstitious actors often refer to the Shakespearean drama as simply "the Scottish play," afraid that mentioning its name could somehow summon the demons of misfortune.

Writer Judith Green in an article in The Sun last week provided voluminous examples of how "Carmen" may be the musical counterpart of "Macbeth."

On opening night of the Baltimore Opera Company's production of "Carmen" at the Lyric Theater several weeks ago, mezzo Irina Mishura fell as her spike heels slid out from under her on the raked stage.

Despite a broken wrist, Mishura continued to perform the rest of the role as "gorgeously as she had before [the accident]," wrote Green in praise of what must have been a pain-filled performance.

Clifford C. Bruck Sr., a retired Western Maryland Railway executive and opera fan who lives in Guilford, recalled the other day that even the great soprano Rosa Ponselle wasn't immune from the curse of "Carmen."

Tumultuous engagement

Ponselle made her Baltimore debut as Carmen the last night of the Metropolitan Opera Company's three-night Baltimore season during the first week of April 1936.

The engagement that proved to be such a tumultuous and emotional one for Baltimore opera fans also had fateful consequences for Ponselle.

On opening night, an audience of 4,102 jammed the Lyric to hear Lucrezia Bori, Metropolitan Opera Company soprano, sing the role of Mimi in Giacomo Puccini's "La Boheme."

At the conclusion of the opera, which also included Met greats Lawrence Tibbett and Ezio Pinza, Bori stepped out in front of the curtain and in front of the footlights said her "farewell to the American operatic stage," reported The Sun.

"This is a sad evening for me. Yet, it is made happy by the thought that I will say farewell to opera here in Baltimore where I have so many friends, where I have learned to love the people who have been so kind. Tonight is the end," said Bori.

On closing night, two days later, before an audience of 3,400, Ponselle sang the role of Bizet's "Carmen," a role that the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians described as being her only true failure and one she "attempted perhaps unwisely."

The performance also included native Hilda Hopkins Burke.

"But Baltimore welcomed its own Metropolitan prima dona, Hilda Burke," with "richly deserved enthusiasm," reported The Sun.

Supernumerary for a night

Retired railroad executive Bruck, then a senior at Johns Hopkins University, recalled landing a one-night job as a supernumerary in "Carmen."

"I got it through a friend who knew Fred R. Huber, municipal director of music," Bruck said from his home.

"I was a chimney sweep and [was] paid the princely sum of $1. And the stage manager told us, 'For God's sake, don't open your mouth,' " said Bruck, with a chuckle.

"We did a lot of shuttling on and off stage and waiting in the wings. I was later distressed when my German professor complained that the stage was crowded with this gang of extras, and I was one of those extras," he said, laughing.

"The flame-colored costume which she wore in the second act flattered every curve of her body like a well-turned compliment. 'Carmen,' in this array, a genuine Spanish spitfire, sidled around the stage like an alternately playful and vindictive tigress," wrote The Sun music critic of Ponselle's performance.

And then the "Carmen" curse revealed itself at the end of the third act.

Carmen, who has fallen madly in love with Escamillo, the toreador, and is swept her off her feet by his overtures, informs her former lover, Don Jose, that she is leaving him.

A too-energetic move

Rene Maison, singing the role of Don Jose, the enraged, spurned lover, threw Ponselle to the floor, injuring her arm, in what was described as an "over energetic performance" by The Sun.

"I didn't actually see it happen, being backstage at the time, but the opera was stopped while Dr. Hugh Hampton Young, who was in the audience, came backstage to examine Rosa's arm," said Bruck.

Despite having broken a small bone in her forearm, Ponselle returned to the stage and completed her performance.

"She gamely continued, and finished the opera and brought the company's three-night season to a highly successful conclusion last night," said The Sun.

"As the seductive and self-willed heroine of Bizet's opera, Rosa Ponselle was the bright particular star of the evening, judging by the applause which brought her back for several curtain calls at the end of nearly every act, and an unqualified ovation after Act 1."

Bruck, who was for 30 years a member of the board of the Baltimore Opera Company and got to know Ponselle intimately, said that she "certainly had the temperament for 'Carmen.' "

"Years later, I reminded her of that night, and she said it was also the same night that she 'met that Jackson guy' at a post-opera supper at the Roland Park home of Dr. Young," said Bruck.

Later that year, she married Carle Jackson, the dashing and handsome polo-playing son of Mayor Howard W. Jackson. She ended her Metropolitan career in 1937 and moved to Villa Pace, her Green Spring Valley home. The couple divorced in 1950, and Ponselle died in 1981.

"It was truly a fateful night in her life. In addition to injuring herself, she met and later married Mr. Jackson, and that was the very reason that brought Rosa to Baltimore," said Bruck.

Pub Date: 4/05/98

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