Italy ROF(3) Mozart, Gluck, Weber, Rossini, Cherubini, Donizetti, Prokofiev, Glinka, Ponchielli. Ewa Podleś (contralto) Filarmonica Gioacchino Rossini. Conductor, Carlo Tenan. Music by Teatro Rossini, Pesaro 20.08.2014 (JB)
Ewa Podleś is unique. She is a coloratura contralto. It’s not just the uniqueness of the tessitura (She has a range of over three octaves). It’s the intelligent musicianship and innate dramatic sense which informs her immense natural gifts.
Immense is the operative word. Unlike all other voices the Big Voice improves as it matures. Birgit Nilsson’s final years of singing were much more impressive than her earlier years. I remember as a music student attending Ring rehearsals at Covent Garden. Madame Nilsson, Solti called to the stage, this is only a rehearsal: you don’t need to sing the part; just mark it. Maestro, she called back, the only thing I know to do with Brünhilde is to sing her, and if that is no problem for you, that is what I shall continue to do. Much laughter and a round of applause from the orchestra followed.
The standing ovation which greeted Ewa Podleś’ first appearance on the stage of the Teatro Rossini was surpassed only by the generosity of her own performance. Therein the vitality of two-way communication.
She began quietly. Relatively quietly. For her softest notes are as rich as they are hushed. That befits the contralto voice. But since there aren’t any of them anymore and anyone under the age of forty in Western Europe is unlikely to have heard one live, that detail needs mentioning. Orfeo’s lament for the lost Eurydice was sung in French which somehow gives Gluck’s plea a more hallowed, prayer like tone. Clara Butt used to boom this out in Italian. Listen to the recording. Podleś is much more intimate and touchingly humble. Dame Clara didn’t have much time for humility. She became known as the Voice of the British Empire. And Beachum said that on a clear day you could hear Dame Clara on the other side of the English Chanel.
Next up was Ciro’s Gran Scena e cavatina –Ciro infelice from Rossini’s Ciro in Babilonia. The moment we were all waiting for. All of us who were present for her 2012 ROF appearance in this role. Here, la Podleś shook the theatre to its foundations. There was the feeling of the Emperor blowing the entire audience out into the piazza. And enjoying every minute of the thrill, of course.
Interleaved between the singing were a series of overtures. The young conductor, Carlo Tenan, led the even younger players of the Filarmonica Gioachino Rossini really rather well. However, the programme there was ill chosen. The concert opened with the overture to La Clemenza di Tito (surely Mozart’s weakest) followed by Weber’s most boring overture to Euryanthe. Can one get duller than this in the overture repertory? Well, yes, there is the dullest of the dull in Cherubini’s Medea overture. We then shot from hell to the stars with one of the greatest overtures, ideally suited to young players: Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila. The players had great fun with this Russian vivacity. So did we.
Imagine the effect of the Podleś delivery of the Brindisi from Lucrezia Borgia after the deadly dull Cherubini. The theatre lit up with cheers. Ms Podleś is an admirable hostess. Clara Butt used to slow down for effects on this. (Listen to her recording.) Podleś has no use for the special effects department. She knows that they will be there effortlessly as part of her vocal makeup. And she outdid the young folks of the band in the sheer fun she conveyed. As her “guests” we were ecstatic.
Some words were exchanged between singer and conductor following this, which I first couldn’t hear, but she then audibly said in Italian, Do you mean we’re going into the Prokofiev without a pause? To which the maestro nodded his head. She opened her palms heavenwards toward her Maker, shrugged her shoulders and with her left hand gave him a resigned on-with-the-show wave.
The Death Camp, no 6 of the Alexander Nevsky cantata brought out the most velvety legato I ever heard from a singer. Drama was laid aside. It was the sheer beauty of tone which will remain with all who heard it. And the sincerity of the delivery. And I, like many in the audience, do not have a knowledge of Russian. But voices as great as this overcome all language barriers.
Then followed the Glinka overture. The singer returned for the blind mother’s aria –voce di donna o d’Angelo from La Gioconda. Ponchielli’s celebrated aria can easily disintegrate into sentimentality. Podleś could give all other singers lessons in the art of restraint: how that art can subtly increase the sense, providing the focus is clearly perceived. It’s a question of the balance of delivery while resisting the temptation to overblow the detail.
More fun to end with, combined with some fine Rossini irony. Cruda sorte from L’Italiana in Algeri. Podleś makes it clear that this particular Italian Girl is one you don’t mess around with. As well as one who knows how to enjoy herself. I fancy that both traits are probably true of the real life lady too.