In the 2003-04 New York season, when I heard Renee Fleming sing the "Song to the Moon" during Dvoryak's "Rusalka" at the Metropolitan Opera, the most impressive vocal effort was still the Ulrica of Ewa Podles. In a concert version of Verdi's "Un ballo in maschera," Ms. Podles reminded once again that she is actually either a creature from another planet where singing is revered as the highest art or a time traveler sent from the golden age of Ernestine Schumann-Heink. I have a good friend in the Collegiate Chorale, and she told me that Ms. Podles's entrance took them all by surprise. In an otherwise wooden ensemble performance, this larger than life superstar slithered (there is no other word for what she did) out onto the Carnegie Hall stage with a facial expression right out of D.W. Griffith. Even before she opened her mouth, she electrified the entire audience (and the singers as well, as I found out after the fact). Once she intoned her first resonating contralto note, everyone else might just as well have gone home. We only had ears for her.
Appearances by Madame are rare in this city and therefore doubly cherished. On Sunday afternoon, she fronted the Moscow Chamber Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall. Her first number was a rarity, the Joan of Arc Cantata of Gioacchino Rossini. It is hard to imagine that anyone ever performed it more strikingly.
Really not a cantata at all, but rather one gigantic bel canto aria, the piece is one of the composer's "Sins of My Old Age," that age being a relative term since Rossini retired so early in life. In this orchestration by Salvatore Sciarrino, the operatic qualities of the work are even more emphasized. Ms. Podles, as good as any performer alive today at plunging headlong into character, delivered the impassioned statement not as the world's most impressive contralto, but rather as St. Joan herself.
With the look of Falconetti from Antonin Artaud's "The Passion of Joan of Arc," Ms. Podles exhibited her amazing range, both tonal and dramatic. She has an incredibly secure lower register, instantly breathtaking, but she also can match the top line of any self-respecting mezzo (I once heard her do excerpts from "Carmen" that were superb). After a well-paced and intense cavatina, she seemed to need only one audible breath to dazzle with a tongue-twisting cabaletta to die for. I shouldn't admit this, but words tend to fail me in these extreme situations: You really needed to be there to appreciate such rare artistry.
The program opened with a decent reading of the Symphony No. 49 of Haydn, notable for a "less is more" approach of approximately 20 musicians sounding like 60.Alas, this is a Russian orchestra and so was a little heavy in tone, a bit blocky in rhythm. A nimbler performance would have been super. Much more fun was the arrangement of five of Sergei Prokofiev's "Visions Fugitives" for this little band.
The second half of the program was devoted to two signature works. Rudolf Barshai, the founder of this orchestra, once arranged Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet for this group, and the ensemble has been dining out on it ever since. This is third-hand Shostakovich, if you will, since the eighth is mostly a rehash of the first and fifth symphonies, the opera "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" and the first cello concerto, but at least it was played authoritatively.
Mussorgsky's "Songs and Dances of Death" should really be the province of a woman since the first song, Kolybelnaya" (Lullaby), is a description of a dialogue between a mother and both her dying child and death himself. However, the cycle has long been a specialty of men (especially Christoff and Kipnis) because of the lower register necessary to pull it off. Ms. Podles not only can sing all the notes roundly but also can act the part of the desperate mother. Her abrupt cutting off of the last "bayushki, bayu, bayu" (bye-bye, baby, bye) is truly chilling.
Over time, this piece has become hers, and she offered it this day as a great gift to her loyal fans. The Shostakovich orchestration is okay, although somewhat blaring in spots, and the orchestra by this ending number was drifting further away from proper intonation. But Ms. Podles was so affecting that I doubt anyone cared.
Finally, one more observation. The ovation Ms. Podles received when she first came onstage for the Rossini was louder and longer than almost any that is granted to a diva after a great performance. I will leave it to your imagination to envision what the applause sounded like by the end of this spectacular concert.