Ewa Podleś (b 1952 in Warsaw) is one of the greatest singers of the end of the old century and the first years of the new. Though appreciated by devotees of opera, she has not received as much recognition as her great ability warrants. Part of the reason is the failure of the Met to engage her. She did appear with company in four performances of Handel’s Rinaldo in 1984, only two of which were at the Lincoln Center theater. In 2008 she returned for five staging of La Gioconda; she played the small role of La Cieca. That’s it for one the vocal wonders of recent times. I suspect that a big reason for the Met’s neglect of Podleś was that her career overlapped that of Marilyn Horne and that there wasn’t room for both of them at the big house. While she has not officially retired she has not performed during the past couple of years. She devotes her time to teaching. She did appear in other American cities, but her career was based in Europe.
Podleś was a true contralto with a range that spanned three octaves. In one of the clips below she hits a high D. Her repertoire favored coloratura roles from Handel to Rossini, but she also performed Mahler and the work of several Russian composers.
Cara sposa is from the first act of Handel’s Rinaldo (1711) – the first Italian language opera specifically written for the London stage. If this is your first exposure to Podleś’ voice you’ll notice how distinctive is her sound and that she is a true contralto. That such rich low and middle notes are connected to such a brilliant and agile top make her unique.
Il Ritorno di Tobia was Haydn’s first oratorio. It was initially performed in Vienna in 1775. Sudò il guerriero is the aria ins which she adds the high D alluded to above.
Next the Rossini selections. The Swan of Pesaro was one of the pillars on which she built her career. Tancredi (1813) was Rossini’s first big success. Di tanti palpiti is the best known number in the opera. It’s sung by Tancredi in the second scene of Act 1. The clip here includes the prefatory music ‘Oh patria! dolce, e ingrate patria’. La donna del lago (1819) was taken from a novel by Walter Scott. Mura felici, ove il mio ben si aggira! Dopo più lune io vi riveggo is sung by Elena’s lover Malcolm. Elena is the wet lady of the title. Semiramide (1823) was Rossini’s last Italian opera. Based on Voltaire’s play Semiramis it requires a contralto (in the trouser role of Arsace) of the highest virtuosity. It was given without a lot of effect last season at the Met. Eccomi alfine in Babilonia… Ah! quel giorno ognor rammento is sung by Arsace after he first appears in the initial act. He’s Smeiramide’s long lost son, though he doesn’t know that she’s his mother.
Another travesty bel canto role for contralto is Orsini is Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Il segreto per esser felici is his drinking song that is followed by mass murder. Lucrezia poisons everyone at the party because she didn’t like their attitude. She also accidently offs her own son.
There’s another side to Podleś’ art. Listen to this beautiful and moving singing of Urlicht from Mahler’s Symphony # 2. Mahler’s haunting music receives as sensitive and insightful reading as can be found anywhere.
The same interpretive genius is heard in her approach to Russian music. This Romance by Tchaikovsky was recorded when the singer was but 26 years old. Very impressive, though the voice is not fully developed; the deep tones have yet to arrive. The Field Marshall is the last of Mussorgsky’s four Songs and Dances of Death. “The figure of Death is depicted as an officer marshaling, illuminated by the moon, the dead troops of both armies after a dreadful and bloody battle. He tells them: in life you were enemies but now you are comrades, because you’re all dead, and I am your commanding officer. He assures them that although the living will forget about them, he will remember them, and will harden the earth above them so that they cannot be resurrected.” Quotation from linked article. Podleś’ interpretation is a lesson in dramatic intensity. The orchestration of the song original written for piano was by Shostakovich. The final Russian piece is from Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, the canata he made out of his score for Sergei Eisenstein’s film of the same name. This too is about death – a Russian preoccupation. It follows the famous battle on the ice. The Field of the Dead
Verdi was not a prominent part of Podleś’ art. She did occasionally perform Verdi’s music, especially the Requiem. Her singing of the Liber Scriptus is perfection. Given the dramatic thrust she showed in Russian music, I’m sure she could have been a fine Verdi contralto had she so wished. what she accomplished and left to posterity places her at the highest levels of vocal art.