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?