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Almost Bringing the House Down With a Rarely Heard Rossini

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Jennifer Taylor for The New York Times

Ewa Podles with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, directed by Constantine Orbelian, at Avery Fisher Hall.

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Published: February 28, 2006

Ewa Podles can certainly excite an audience. When Ms. Podles, a Polish-born contralto, finished her electrifying performance of a rarely heard Rossini solo cantata, "Joan of Arc," on Sunday afternoon, people throughout Avery Fisher Hall burst into frenzied applause and lusty bravos. There was so much foot-stomping the walls seemed to shake. One feared that the scheduled gutting and renovation of the auditorium were about to get an early start.


 

Yet there were many empty seats, including whole sections of the balconies. That this concert with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra was a rental and not part of any Lincoln Center series may account somewhat for the spotty attendance. Another explanation is that Ms. Podles, despite having sung to acclaim around the world, has somehow never clinched the deal with mainstream opera buffs. Her career to date with the Metropolitan Opera consists of two appearances at the house and two in the parks singing the role of Handel's "Rinaldo" in 1984.

She has worked closely with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra and its music director, Constantine Orbelian, who conducted on Sunday. The program included vibrant performances of symphonic works by Haydn, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and ended with Ms. Podles's harrowing account of Mussorgsky's bleakly moving "Songs and Dances of Death," sung in Russian.

Ms. Podles, who is 53, is a rarity among singers, a true contralto, the lowest female voice type. Yet it's not range alone that makes a contralto; many mezzo-sopranos can match Ms. Podles's low tones. It's the dark coloring, earthy character and plummy richness of her sound that define her powerful contralto voice. Even in its upper register, it has dusky tone and throbbing intensity. Tossing off coloratura runs is not second nature to her. But as she showed in her commanding performance of the Rossini, she has a solid technique and has found her own fearless way to navigate such difficulties.

Finally, though, Ms. Podles's artistry is defined by her complete emotional commitment. In "Joan of Arc" she sang the ruminative dramatic recitative with engrossing spontaneity, shaped the phrases of the pensive cavatina with melting beauty and did not cheat on a single note during the coloratura fireworks in Joan's avenging final aria.

The Mussorgsky song cycle was performed in a version by Shostakovich with the piano accompaniment arranged for full-size chamber orchestra. While I prefer the intimacy of the piano in these disturbing songs, the added richness of the instruments well complemented Ms. Podles's multihued and utterly haunting singing.

Mr. Orbelian drew fine playing from the musicians, especially in a keenly dramatic and sensitively lyrical account of Haydn's Symphony No. 49 ("La Passione"). Still, Ms. Podles stole the show. Naturally there were encores: a song from Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky" and an aria from Tchaikovsky's "Moscow Cantata."

Ms. Podles must come back to the Met. Peter Gelb, where are you?

 

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MUSIC REVIEW

Cult contralto an embraceable Ewa


 
 
Ewa Podles
Ewa Podles
MOSCOW CHAMBER ORCHESTRA.
 
Constantine Orbelian conducting. Attended Sunday at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center. For details, visit www.moscow chamberorchestra.com.

BY MARION LIGNANA ROSENBERG
SPECIAL TO NEWSDAY

March 1, 2006

Contralto Ewa Podles made her sole New York appearance this season at Sunday's Avery Fisher Hall concert by the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. The only conclusion to be drawn from this fact is that the presenters who fail to bring Podles here more often are very, very stupid.

A cult artist whose first and, for now, last Metropolitan Opera performances took place in 1984, Podles has a voice unique in our times - huge and breathtakingly flexible, soaring from inky depths to blazing heights. It has a throbbing, enveloping presence even when scaled down to a thread of sound, and it pins listeners to the backs of their seats when unfurled at full volume.

The velvet of Podles' timbre is a bit frayed, and she sometimes shifts vocal gears roughly, but these are trifling flaws given the staggering mastery and conviction of the contralto's art.

She performed Rossini's "Giovanna d'Arco," a cantata that is also a specialty of Cecilia Bartoli. Both women sing the piece superbly, but where Bartoli is an ingratiating shepherdess, ever "selling" Rossini's music to her grateful audience, Podles is a prophetess communing with the divine, who strikes listeners dumb with awe. From her ecstatic greeting of the angel of death to her stirring final summons to military glory, Podles was electric.

Constantine Orbelian led the Moscow Chamber Orchestra in a suave and fiery reading of the Rossini as orchestrated by Salvatore Sciarrino, whose work evokes the elegant sonorities of "Guillaume Tell."

Mussorgsky's "Songs and Dances of Death" found Podles in equally commanding form. She attacked "Serenade," in which death, in the guise of a knight, conquers a maiden, with the bold relish of a huntsman sure of his prey, ending the song on a note of feral triumph. In "Lullaby," the velvety, seductive lightness of her voice still told of a devouring hunger, and her final syllables sounded as a sadistic rasp. Passionately sung encores left her audience clamoring for more.

The Moscow Chamber Orchestra opened Sunday's concert with Haydn's Symphony No. 49, thought to depict the sufferings of Christ. It was a thick, monochromatic reading, marred by ragged attacks early on, but with a beautifully introspective cast and a gripping sense of urgency.

Five of Prokofiev's epigrammatic "Visions fugitives," arranged for string orchestra by Rudolf Barshai, showcased the orchestra's impressive range, from the quizzical, glassy streaks of sound of the opening "Assai moderato" to the scampering, breathless sense of flight that informed the "Inquieto" movement.

Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony in C-minor featured exemplary solo playing - long, desolate threads of violin tone that revealed worlds of pain, a sad and radiant cello melody imbued with soulful eloquence. A gray chill suffused Shostakovich's astonishing score as it shifted from frantic sawing to its whispery conclusion, as if it were a dusky landscape glimpsed through a window trickling with condensation.