Dateline San Francisco March 13:
I'm an opera lover who is relatively new to this art form. I somehow feel left out when I hear of singers who trod the boards during the most recent "Golden Age". So when I attended the San Francisco concert tribute to Marilyn Horne last year, I mourned because I never had the opportunity to hear her sing in her prime. While I will never capture the bliss of hearing Horne's inimitable Arsace, I think I know something akin to it. I heard Ewa Podles sing some of the greatest of Rossini's mezzo-contralto arias on Monday night.
So who is this Ewa Podles (pronounced A-va PODE-lesh)? Ms. Podles is a Polish born contralto, trained at the Warsaw Academy of Music by Madame Bolechowska. Podles' debut came in 1975 in Warsaw, singing the role of Dorabella. Her career took her to Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, and Toulouse in the late 1970s, and in the early 1980s she sang throughout Europe. Her North American debut was in 1984 at the Metropolitan Opera in the title role of Handel's Rinaldo, and in Vancouver as Adalgisia. What happened from then until now is a strange length of time where there isn't any significant performance history until 1990. This strikes many as a pitiful waste of an extraordinary talent. 1990 found Ms. Podles singing Jaroslavna in a Warsaw Prince Igor and in 1991 in Covent Garden's William Tell and Dalila for Paris' Opera Bastille. Her discography includes a thrilling 1994 Grammy-nominated Tancredi with Sumi Jo and Stanford Olsen (the disc which brought Podles to my attention) and a 1995 disc of Rossini arias.
Podles sang with the most rich and gorgeous tones I have ever encountered. She effortlessly plumbed the very bottom chest notes and then sailed to the nearly stratospheric top of her range. Her voice is fresh and agile yet there is a security which is uncanny. Her style was imbued with power and ringing brilliance as she sang the trouser arias from Tancredi "Di Tanti Palpiti", Maometto II, Semiramide "Ah, quel giorno", and La Donna del Lago "Mura felici". She changed from an evening suit into an evening gown and gave a girlish pizazz to Il Barbiere's "Una voce poco fa" and "Pensa all patria" from L'italiana in Algeri. Podles sustained notes for so long an inner voice was urging her to "BREATHE" and at the same time dare her to sustain them longer. A libretto was provided in English translation only, but those who are familiar with rudimentary Italian had no trouble following the music with Podles' wonderful Italian diction and sensitivity to the text. Encores were "Cruda sorte" from L'italiana in Algeri and "Canzonetta Spagnoula".
Ms. Podles was beautifully supported in her singing by the deft touch of native San Franciscan Constantine Orbelian conducting the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra was beefed up for some of the overtures with a handful of local musicians. The orchestra never overpowered Ms. Podles and her voice sailed over the orchestra and filled the War Memorial Opera House. I was especially delighted by the violin section which played Rossini's vivid music with great agility. The overtures were from Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Gaza Ladra and La Cenerentola, enough to give the most stalwart Rossini fan a thorough orchestral "fix".
San Francisco opera goers owe a great deal to the organization which sponsored the evening's festivities. Four Seasons Concerts and Today's Artist programs sponsored this concert honoring their founder Rev. Dr. Hazaiah Williams. Rev. Dr. Williams was instrumental in bringing diverse cultural events to Bay Area audiences including a historic San Francisco recital by another magnificent contralto ~ Marian Anderson. Many in the audience attended to pay tribute to Rev. Dr. Williams, but it was unfortunate that this event was not more widely publicized. Opera stalwarts who did not attend this concert have no idea what they missed. I became acquainted with some people at supper prior to the performance. They had never attended an operatic recital and so I attempted to fill them in on what they would see and hear. I attended a lecture on Maestro Rossini the prior week, so I was filled with operatic history factoids. They asked me what I anticipated hearing that evening. My response, "A concert of a lifetime." I'm thrilled to say that it truly was.
My next event on the opera menu will again be Rossini. On March 25th I will be attending the opening night performance of Festival Opera's [Walnut Creek, California] Il Barbiere di Siviglia.