The hall of the Warsaw National Opera House was packed out with people from all over Europe coming to hear the great Polish contralto Ewa Podleś perform a series of arias which showcased the wide-ranging scope of her repertoire. Accompanying her was conductor Michael Güttler, and the Teatru Wielkiego choir and orchestra.
To start the evening, we were treated to a lively performance of the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, from Handel’s Solomon. The orchestra was in good form, and particular praise must go to the oboe soloists who did a spectacular job. Madame Podleś arrived onstage to a thunderous applause, dressed in a glamorous black trouser suit with sequins. Her first aria was “Dover, giustizia, amor” from Ariodante, which she took slightly slower than usual, but nevertheless dominated it in true Podleś style. The end of the aria saw her rise to a ringing A5, only to thunder down to a chesty D4 to finish.
We were treated to three pieces of Rossini during the program, two overtures and an aria/scena. The first overture was from William Tell, in which the cello soloists and the section in general were magnificent, playing with intensity and feeling. The ebullient overture from Il Signor Bruschino was the second orchestral offering from Rossini. Güttler’s conducting was full of zany energy, and the second violins very much enjoyed their bow-tapping on the stands. (The score of the bow tapping can be seen in the picture below).
Ewa Podleś gave a highly dramatic and aggressive performance of “Ciro infelice” from Rossini’s Ciro in Babilonia. Pitch-perfect notes at the top of the voice were thrown out like javelins at the audience, while the true contralto chest register was unleashed on more than one occasion, with the slow descent to E3 a stunning example of the cavernous force of the lower end of the female voice. Podleś ended the aria with a truly primal D4, high in the chest register, which lasted right until the end of the orchestral accompaniment. It was a truly devastating piece of singing, which earned a huge round of applause from the audience.
Podleś again impressed with “Il sergreto per esser felici” from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Her perfect legato singing was matched with a very rich sound in the middle register. Her F5’s and G5’s were spot-on, and Podleś seemed to enjoy moving through the upper register in this aria. During the repetition of the phrase “si dan del futuro pensier” she once again plumbed the contralto profundo depths, hitting an E3 of such force and resonance that a couple of tenors in the choir were rather taken aback!
Returning to the stage, Podleś had changed into a wonderful orange dress with black lace embroidery to sing “Field of Death” from Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky. The mesmerising timbre of the Podleś middle register was perfect for this piece, and the great contralto was forced to come back onstage at the end, such was the level of applause she received. Another emotionally charged aria was “Voce di donna o d’angelo” from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. Here Podleś was full of high drama, fiercely emotional and physically compelling. Again the audience erupted with applause.
The concert program concluded with a selection of music from two Verdi operas. The first piece was the overture to La forza del destino, the main motif of which was beautifully played by the wind section. The spectacular Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore gave the bass and contralto sections of the choir a chance to shine, as the main part of the chorus is written in unison high in the voice. The wall of sound from the right of the choir was startling to behold.
Finally, Madame Podleś returned to the stage as Azucena singing the menacing “Stride la Vampa” also from Il Trovatore. The Polish contralto’s acting ability came to the fore here, as she was totally in character from the moment she took position next to Güttler. Her high notes were extraordinarily resonant, a testament to her excellent technique.
We were treated to two encores. The first was a scene from Massenet’s Cendrillon, where Podleś takes on the character role of Madame de la Haltière, a role she performed at the Royal Opera House. Her comic timing was perfect, and her gestures and expressions intelligently executed. The final encore was “Cruda Sorte” from Rossini’s L'italiana in Algeri. Podleś alternated magnificently between the light head register for the coloratura passages, and the dark chest register used for the chromatic descent on the phrase “tutti la bramano”. She ended the concert in true Podleś style with a formidable F5 which rang out spectacularly.
It was an amazing concert, and I’m very glad I went to Warsaw to see her.