The Met Opera's newest star returns, on the small screen

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The Met Opera's newest star returns, on the small screen
Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen at the Met Opera House in New York, Nov. 8, 2019. Davidsen, who made a widely hailed company debut last season, won’t be back in the fall as planned, but she is giving a live recital this weekend. Kyle Johnson/The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The Metropolitan Opera placed a big bet on the young Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, casting her in five productions far into the future before she had even sung her first note in New York.

Maybe it was a safe bet: By the time Davidsen made her debut with the company last fall, at just 32, she was already one of the fastest-rising singers in the world, collecting competition prizes and performing on opera’s great stages. But the Met was a new challenge, a house that’s prone to hype and acoustically unforgiving for smaller voices; it’s quickly clear who thrives there and who does not.

It took all of one entrance in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades” to brush off any fears about Davidsen’s future with the Met. The voice I heard was awe-inspiring in its power, an electric flash that filled the cavernous theater with its radiance; even when quieter, controlled and delicate, its softness was nonetheless focused, penetrating the sounds of her fellow singers and the orchestra as if carried by beams of light.

In Davidsen, the Met had found its newest star. And fans wouldn’t need to wait long for her to return. The plan was for her to sing Leonore in Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Fidelio” this fall. But, in what has become a template story, it was canceled — along with everything else there until New Year’s Eve, at the earliest — because of the coronavirus pandemic.

As it happens, Leonore was Davidsen’s final role, at the Royal Opera House in London, before her schedule was virtually erased. Now it isn’t clear when or if she will bring it to the Met; like the company itself, she won’t be back in the house anytime soon.

But on Saturday, she will be reunited with the Met — not in New York, but from Oslo, Norway — for the latest installment of its Met Stars Live in Concert series. These pandemic-born, small-screen performances, livestreamed in high definition with the audio quality of a studio album, have so far featured fan favorites like Renée Fleming and Jonas Kaufmann in unconventional, yet often beautiful, spaces. No exception, Davidsen’s will be broadcast from the Oscarshall palace, the museum and summer residence of the Norwegian royal family.

I joined Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, and veterans of the company’s Live in HD cinema broadcasts, for a technical rehearsal on Thursday at All Mobile Studios in Chelsea. Everyone was screened at the door with a temperature check and questionnaire; they shouted camera cues through masks. Afterward, I spoke with Davidsen on Zoom. By then, it was 10 p.m. in Oslo. Yet even following the run-through, with abrupt stops and starts that can be jarring for any artist, she was patient and gracious — never the proud diva you might expect for someone in her position.

We talked about her Met program — which charts an unlikely journey from Richard Wagner to cabaret, operetta and Broadway, with pianist James Baillieu — and about how it comes between rehearsals for “Die Walküre” at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, a large-scale production that seems unfathomable in a time when many houses remain closed. I also wanted to hear from her about what it meant, as an erstwhile singer-songwriter from a small town, to be performing in a palace belonging to Queen Sonja of Norway, who last year flew to New York just to see her at the Met.

When I brought up the subject, Davidsen laughed and said, “This scarf I’m wearing is actually a gift from the queen.”

She recalled a conversation with the queen the day before — which she acknowledged is strange to say — in which she was told that her life is a fairy tale. “I was like, ‘You’re right,’” Davidsen said. “I’m talking to the queen as if we know each other; I’m doing this concert for the Met. For me it’s all about the concert and making it good, but I can forget how special that is.”

Her Met recital begins with “Dich, Teure Halle,” from Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” which she sang for competitions and her first solo album as well as a declarative entrance at Bayreuth last summer. The music is a greeting; and at the palace in Oslo, it’s an introduction to the recital’s small yet ornate, wood-finished space, lit from behind by Scandinavian twilight and decorated with 19th-century paintings. (It’s actually the dining room.)

On Thursday, Davidsen didn’t appear to shrink her voice, treating the room as if it were the Met, while Baillieu matched her with the grandeur of Franz Liszt’s Wagner transcriptions. These are sensitive musicians, though, and they followed “Tannhäuser” with smaller, rending songs by Grieg and Sibelius as well as Richard Strauss.

After an excerpt from Giacomo Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” the program shifts from Italian opera to Benjamin Britten’s “Johnny,” from the composer’s “Cabaret Songs” written with W.H. Auden; it’s comparatively more playful, with comedic glissandos and an extreme depth of range that reveals Davidsen’s past as a mezzo-soprano. She closed with “I Could Have Danced All Night,” which I mentioned was also sung by Birgit Nilsson, the Swedish titan of opera, to whom she’s been compared — a coincidence, Davidsen said.

She wants you to think of the concert’s cabaretlike turn as a program encore. “You can’t really lighten up my repertoire,” Davidsen said. “I wanted to light up the mood a little bit. I also feel that in some recitals and opera, I never get to show this other side. I don’t need to; I don’t have this cabaret kind of woman hidden, and it’s not a peek or preview into my future. But this is fun, and different.”

It’s different, too, for Davidsen to simply be busy. She sang in two livestreamed concerts in Norway this spring and has been at work on her second album but has otherwise been away from the stage since the Royal’s “Fidelio,” which completed its run several days after houses closed elsewhere. I asked what it was like to perform as the industry was coming to a halt and whether she had been afraid.

What she described seemed a world away from pandemic precautions as we now know them. As “Fidelio” was opening, using hand sanitizer was seen as more important than wearing a mask. And on the day of the final rehearsal, she woke up feeling fatigued and unable to push very hard at the gym. Then she lost her senses of smell and taste. At the time, that wasn’t a widely known symptom, and she thought that she was tired because of stress. Her illness never got any worse, so she slept and, undaunted, sang on opening night. Only later did she realize she probably had COVID-19; indeed, she eventually tested positive for antibodies.

The protocols for Wagner’s “Die Walküre” in Berlin are exponentially more vigilant. Davidsen said she is tested every morning; results come by noon or 1 p.m., then the company rehearses from 2 to 9. She doesn’t otherwise venture outside except for essentials. Inside the Deutsche Oper, both the cast and crew members are required to wear masks.

Davidsen couldn’t give away much about this “Ring” cycle, an eagerly anticipated new production by Stefan Herheim, in which she is singing Sieglinde. “All I can say is that it’s a very different Sieglinde from what I expected,” she said.

If this “Walküre” is particularly mysterious, it’s because “Das Rheingold,” the opera that precedes it in the cycle, was planned for June but canceled. It’s like tuning in to a new TV show halfway through a season and relying on a recap to figure out what’s going on — which adds a layer of difficulty to an already fraught production, the most ambitious opera staging since the pandemic began. To make matters worse, a recent rehearsal was canceled because of a heat wave. “I couldn’t think,” Davidsen said, “it was so hot.”

“But we’re happy we can work,” she quickly added. “The fact that we get to be there is better than anything.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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