Marcella Pobbe

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Track Listing:

  1. Suor Angelica: Senza mamma (Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI, Arturo Basile, conductor, 1956)
  2. La rondine: Ore dolci e liete (Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI, Ugo Cattini, conductor, 1958)
  3. Tosca: Vissi d’arte (Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI, Arturo Basile, conductor, 1956)
  4. Turandot: Signore ascolta (Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI, Ugo Cattini, conductor, 1958)
  5. Turandot: Tu che di gel sei cinta (Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI, Ugo Cattini, conductor, 1958)
  6. Manon Lescaut: In quelle trini morbide (Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI, Ugo Cattini, conductor, 1958)
  7. La bohème: Sì, mi chiamano Mimì (Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI, Ugo Cattini, conductor, 1958)
  8. Gianni Schicchi: O mio babbino caro (Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI, Ugo Cattini, conductor, 1958)
  9. Adriana Lecouvreur: Poveri fiori (Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI, Arturo Basile, conductor, 1956)
  10. Isabeau (Mascagni): Venne una vecchierella (Orchestra Sinfonica di San Remo, Tullio Serafin, conductor, 1956)
  11. Isabeau: Questo mio bianco manto
  12. Mefistofele: L’altra notte in fondo al mare (Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI, Angelo Questa, conductor, 1954)

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Marcella Pobbe
by Stefan Zucker

“All I did was right. I didn’t make mistakes.”–Opera Fanatic: Stefan and the Divas

Born July 13, 1921, in Vicenza, Pobbe studied with Elena Fava Ceriati, who taught a “mechanistic” technique involving lowering the larynx and pressing in at the diaphragm. She also studied with Rinalda Pavoni Giuli, who taught her masque placement. Pobbe said she managed to combine the two approaches. According to her, she began with a voice that was “limited in range and body but beautiful in quality as well as expressive.”

She married early, against the advice of her mother, to get away from Vicenza. According to her, her husband was “violent.” She ran away from him and returned to her mother. Pobbe declared, “My life was never easy nor happy. Everything that I have I owe to myself alone, to my tenacity and talent. After I left my husband, I was attractive and free, which was an advantage from the point of view of the profession but a grave handicap from the human point of view. Orchestra conductors, colleagues and stage directors viewed me as prey, but I was convinced that I didn’t need any help. Besides my marriage had been such a negative experience that I wanted to remain alone and not compromise myself. I wanted to be an artist of merit, without ever having to lower my eyes or feel embarrassed.” Yet she said she had several affairs that ended badly for her. According to her, she never got over them.

Having won several vocal contests, she made her debut, in 1948, in Spoleto, as Margherita (Fausto). The following season she made her San Carlo debut, in a revival of Petrella’s I promessi sposi, replacing Onelia Fineschi, who canceled on eight-days’ notice. Shortly afterwards Pobbe came down with tuberculosis but after six months was cured. She re-emerged at the San Carlo as Mimì.

In 1955 she debuted at La Scala, as Betsabea in the house premiere of David (Milhaud), and also sang Agata (Agathe) there. In 1957, however, after a poorly received Elsa, La Scala dropped her although she did reappear at the Piccola Scala in 1961, for Respighi’s Maria Egiziaca. In 1956 she sang in the world premiere of Rossellini’s La guerra, at the San Carlo. She appeared in Verona, London, Paris, Vienna and in South America.

In 1955 and 1956 she filmed three operas for RAI, Adriana, Ballo and Figaro. “At the Figaro rehearsals I was recovering from typhoid fever and was still contagious–a fact I concealed, so as not to lose the part.”

Her Met debut was in 1958, as Mimì. In watching Opera Fanatic it might be helpful to know that, in 1996, in preparation for her interview for the film, Pobbe called me to discuss her Met appearances and Nicolai Gedda. She said she renounced her Met engagement for Elisabetta, in 1959, because they were having a lovers’ quarrel and she didn’t want to appear in the same house with him. She added that this step ended her Met career. (Her affair with Gedda continued off and on, notwithstanding his lovers of both sexes and various marriages.) Pobbe spoke of all this heatedly and at length and asked to discuss it for the record. She claimed that knowledge of this was crucial to understanding why she hardly sang in America afterwards. But when the cameras were rolling she clammed up.

In 1999, however, she maintained in her autobiography, Marcella Pobbe: Dove sono i bei momenti, that she left New York in 1958–with a contract for the following season, to sing Elisabetta. “In the meantime, however, Callas was engaged to sing Lady Macbeth; Rysanek agreed to be her cover only on condition that she would get to perform Elisabetta. To accommodate this, Bing decided to take the part away from me, and that’s why my American career was truncated.”

She said “Desdemona was my most congenial role.” In 1966 she was supposed to sing Fausto at the San Carlo but freed herself to accept an engagement as Desdemona, in Toronto, for two performances. “Then the company hired Tebaldi for one of them, but she decided, without consulting me, to sing both, giving her fee for one to a Parma chorus. Tebaldi blocked me from singing my Desdemona–a comparison she perhaps wanted to avoid.” Shortly afterwards Pobbe was scheduled for a Florence Bohème; however, her mother died. Two days after the funeral Pobbe performed Mimì: “The most beautiful one of my career because I was able to put into it the grief I felt for the person I loved most.”

In 1974 she was engaged for Aïda at Caracalla. She was uneasy about the part and went to Cigna to prepare it. Pobbe had a success; however, when she was re-engaged by Caracalla for the role in 1975, she felt she was not in good voice during rehearsals. At the first performance, “My voice became covered over, lost its bloom and I couldn’t explain why. Afterwards even my speaking voice was opaque. I would begin to vocalize, but after a few minutes my voice would become opaque. I went to a throat doctor but he didn’t help. My voice tired quickly. I saw a man who applied magnetic stimulation to my larynx, without result. Eventually I found my way to someone in Varese who used a stroboscope and determined that one of my cords was relaxed and that they were not coming together. Air was passing through them. He prescribed rest. I saw several doctors, but my left cord remained relaxed. I anesthetized my throat and gradually the elasticity of my cords returned.

“A doctor in Vienna, Kürsten, maintained that menopause was a factor. Menopause had begun during the Caracalla Aïdas. The drop in hormone levels can create vocal problems. Kürsten prescribed hormones and they began to make me fat. But I continued to take them, hoping they would renew my ability to sing, so I could return to life and the stage. I entered into a period of silence and daily electrical stimulation of the larynx, emitted by an apparatus many singers use. For many months I did this nightly, by myself, alone, and avoided speaking. Nor did I sing. After three months I returned to Kürsten and found some improvement. I was suffering from depression but for many months had to continue on a daily basis with the therapy to have any hope of recovering.

“The closest thing in my experience had been at a sanitarium for tuberculosis, after having made my debut at the San Carlo. I learned then that my iron will enabled me to overcome TB and thought it would help me this time as well. Every once in a while I tried to vocalize but my voice became covered over and I fell into a depression, the depths of which I cannot describe. I wondered what would await me if I did recover my voice. Since I was no longer young, there remained an appendix to my career. Surely I would not be able to undertake again my preferred roles, the ones with which my name was linked with such success: Tosca, Desdemona, Adriana, Francesca. Inexorably fate had struck me again with regard to the greatest good that I possessed: my voice. Some theaters already had dropped me in favor of young singers. I wondered what would be my future, the conclusion of my career. Pride forbade me to speak about the situation. I always had confronted grief without involving friends or relatives. I swung back and forth between highs and terrible lows. I had a contract for some Bohèmes at the San Carlo and began to vocalize, with comforting results. My voice held but I studied in small doses. When I began to review Mimì, it was with the greatest joy that I still could hear my voice. I had re-begun at the San Carlo after TB with this part and hoped to revive my career again with it. However, after I arrived in Naples, I caught cold from a draft. I didn’t want to reappear in the theater of my debut and where I had sung for many years with success without being in my best shape. I renounced the part.

“In 1979, not having performed for four years, I sang in Respighi’s Deità silvane, which I had done on other occasions at RAI in Rome as well as in Florence. The public applauded me at length and with affection. The reviews were favorable. I called half of Italy to let people know of my success. But it was my last performance at the San Carlo.

“I hoped for a concert career, but it didn’t happen. It wouldn’t have been prudent to return as Tosca or Francesca: I might have compromised the long years of struggle and sacrifice to recover my voice. Perhaps I should have started auditioning, but at my age that could have been a false step. I studied my old chamber repertory and was engaged for a concert by RAI, for voice and piano. As a benefit for the Verona Arena I sang a concert in a cloister and at Vicenza gave a program of Mozart and Handel in the Teatro Olimpico, with orchestra. I also sang the Pergolesi Stabat Mater and a number of other concerts, including one with orchestra, on RAI, again of music by Mozart and Handel. But I felt the lack of the stage, the characters, the applause. I was happy to be singing but sad because of the restrictions. No one had helped me to return to the limelight, but my voice had been reborn.

“The theaters meanwhile had become very political. They no longer were directed by musicians but by political appointees. I approached some of them and they were ignorant. They didn’t even know who I was or what I had done. I was running into a closed circle, and a respectable artist shouldn’t have to descend or compromise herself with party politics. My party was that of merit. So I tried a new direction: writing. I began to review for Il giornale di Vicenza. They even gave a title for my pieces, ‘Marcella Pobbe’s Scala Box.’ I interviewed seven major conductors, Giulini, Gavazzeni, Maazel, Mehta, Prêtre, Sawallisch and Chung. The interviews were published by L’Accademia Olimpica of Vicenza. I unearthed some music by Giacomo Orefice and resurrected and performed music by Andrea Ferretto, in the church of Barbarano, in Vicenza, in 1991. I’m writing a book about him. I had been made a commendatore and I was honored to be named Grand’Ufficiale dell’Ordine al Merito della Repubblica. I also was granted the Puccini Prize, among others. [Adami Corradetti, Cigna, Frazzoni and Olivero also received this prize.] In Vicenza they even put on an exhibit of my costumes. Through writing I have been able to express myself in another vein–one I always knew I had. Writing permits me to leave a sign of my creativity as well as of my judgements about the world in which I had taken part for decades and which I sorely miss.

“I brought a chamber musician’s sensitivity to opera.”

Marcella Pobbe was found dead of cardiac arrest in her bed in her Milan apartment, on June 18, 2003. She apparently had died four or five days before. In the days before her death, she spoke with several people and seemed in good health.

Pobbe made a career singing operas other Italian sopranos wouldn’t or couldn’t, including Figaro (Contessa), Ifigenia in Aulide, Idomeneo (Elettra), Il principe Igor, Pulzella d’Orléans (Tschaikovsky), Boris (Marina), La fiera di Sorocinci (Mussorgsky), Ivan il terribile (Rimsky-Korsakov), Cavaliere della rosa (La Marescialla), Giulio Cesare (Cleopatra), Orontea (Cesti) and Kovàncina. Her repertory also included Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.”

Her recordings include Mefistofele, Isabeau (Mascagni), Giovanna d’Arco al rogo (Honegger), Carmen, Pêcheurs and Otello. Her other films, also for RAI, were Tosca, Francesca da Rimini as well as several recitals.

She supposedly was dogged by ill luck. For example, she divorced a wealthy husband (the divorce was one of the first in Italy), only to have him drop dead the next day. She made bad investments.

Her sound was sweet, bright, charming, white, evocative of adolescence. She was an Italian Upshaw or Hong but with a more powerful voice. It was even from top to bottom and seemingly produced without effort. Her intonation was accurate, and she had excellent control over dynamics.

In Don Carlo she found more tonal body, but her voice had less focus and her vibrato was wider. She was well schooled but lacked sufficient emotion. Hers was a lighter, brighter sound than one associates with Don Carlo or Trovatore (in which she had a good high D-flat). Divas from the period often claim that, unlike Scotto or Freni, lyric voices didn’t undertake dramatic roles. Pobbe is the counterexample.

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