Last time round we left the late Veronica Dunne about to audition at Covent Garden. She was accepted at once. Interestingly around the same time, Australian soprano Joan Sutherland (1926-2010), who would have a brilliant international career, had four auditions before being accepted as a ‘utility soprano’. She and Ronnie became lifelong friends.
Ronnie made her Royal Opera House debut as Sophie in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier on October 29, 1952. Her success was followed by Mimi (La bohème), under John Barbirolli’s baton on November 19.
The Daily Telegraph was enthusiastic: “An outstanding Mimi in Veronica Dunne…Her voice, which she uses with taste and intelligence, has a charming lyrical freshness and, in the top register, a generous dramatic quality”.
The influential Musical Opinion wrote, “It is seldom indeed, that we have a performance of La bohème in which the Mimi is so ideally cast…In Veronica Dunne the character is personified…It is a shy, yet curiously authoritative, reliving of the fragile role…I do not recollect this [final] scene having a sharper poignancy”.
The Times was less enamoured: “Although her voice was pleasant in quality, it was not big enough for this theatre even for one simulating an affliction of the lungs. Her intonation was not impeccable and neither her dress nor her manner was endearing enough to justify Rudolph’s love at first sight”.
The La bohème run ended on December 22 but in between Ronnie was toing and froing between London and Dublin fulfilling DGOS engagements as Suzel in Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz at the Gaiety.
Over the Christmas recess Ronnie became engaged to her sweetheart Peter McCarthy. The elation was somewhat deflated as her mother felt Ronnie was “making the biggest mistake of her life”. Covent Garden’s general administrator David Webster was furious. He had hoped she would be “a box office star, a real asset to the company, and here she was, putting it all in jeopardy”. Ronnie was resolute.
Back in the Royal Opera there were revivals of La bohème and in February 1953 Ronnie was part of a specially-mounted production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice with the great Lancastrian contralto, Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953), as Orfeo. With Ronnie as Euridice and Adele Leigh as Amor, Barbirolli was in the Covent Garden pit.
Not many knew that Ferrier was seriously ill. On the second night Ronnie realised something was wrong when Ferrier clutched a piece of scenery. Ronnie moved to her side and held her arm. Ferrier sang magnificently to the end but collapsed in agony off-stage. Aided by Ronnie and Adele she managed to take her curtain calls.
The audience had no idea of the off-stage tragedy or that during the performance a fragment of bone had splintered from her femur causing excruciating pain. Ferrier never sang in public again and died in October 1953.
On a happier note that year Ronnie and Peter McCarthy married on July 1 in Dublin’s Marino Church. The couple honeymooned in Italy where they met up with Msgr Hugh O’Flaherty – Ronnie’s guardian when she studied in Rome. More later.