Ewa Podles has enjoyed two decades of operatic superstardom in Europe, yet she has been routinely ignored by the Metropolitan Opera. A true contralto, the lowest and rarest of all female voices, Podles has enough local fans to generate box office stampedes whenever she appears in New York-area concerts. Saturday night was no exception — her perf at Westchester’s Caramoor Festival in the title role of a concert version of Rossini’s “Tancredi” filled all of the Venetian Theater’s 1,727 seats.
“Tancredi” is one of her signature roles, and by rights the Met should have given her a fully staged production of it by now. Premiered in Venice in 1813, “Tancredi” was one of Rossini’s first big operatic successes, a grandiose, stirring blend of the venerable opera seria tradition with the nascent bel canto movement that would reach fruition in Rossini’s later works as well as in the operas of Bellini (“Norma”) and Donizetti (“Lucia di Lammermoor”).
Its story, based on a then-popular play by Voltaire, gave Rossini a perfect setting for the heroic, declamatory vocalism that became a hallmark of his style. In the 11th-century city-state of Syracuse, the exiled nobleman Tancredi returns to claim his lost love Amenaide, but is prevented from doing so through a tragic series of misunderstandings that ultimately lead to his death on the battlefield.
“Tancredi” is a Rossini trouser role — a young warrior given to highly passionate recitatives and arias peppered with intricate, demanding coloratura passages. The effect, coming from a low female voice, can be thrilling, and Podles did not disappoint. Dominating the stage from the moment she appeared, the 53-year-old Polish diva unfurled sounds of pipe-organ plushness as well as a Golden Age command of vocal technique.
Despite the limitations of the concert staging, she gave a fully physicalized performance brimming with near-maniacal intensity. This is a singer for the ages, and the packed house let her know it.
But Podles was not the only fine voice onstage. As Amenaide, soprano Georgia Jarman matched her in sensitivity and technique. She displayed an unerring sense of bel canto style, using seamless legato and patrician vocal embellishments to enhance Rossini’s arching melodies. All she lacks is a truly unique, individual sound, but she is still young, and that may develop with time.
Armenian tenor Yegishe Manucharyan sang with grace and refinement as Amenaide’s father, Argirio, effortlessly hitting the extreme high notes of his taxing second-act aria.
Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs sang elegantly and added some nice snarly tones to his portrayal of Tancredi’s evil rival, Orbazzano.
As Tancredi’s squire Roggiero, soprano Emily Sinclair did what she could with a thankless aria that should have been cut, while mezzo-on-the-rise Laura Vlasak Nolen, as Amenaide’s confidante Isaura, made one look forward to her upcoming New York City Opera appearance as Malcolmo in Rossini’s “La Donna del lago” this fall.
Caramoor’s resident bel canto specialist, Will Crutchfield, did his usual fine job of conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Concert Chorale of New York, and even accompanied the recitatives himself on harpsichord.