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 operas great stages. But the Met was a new challenge, a house thats prone to hype and acoustically unforgiving for smaller voices; its quickly clear who thrives there and who does not.
It took all of one entrance in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovskys The Queen of Spades to brush off any fears about Davidsens 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 wouldnt need to wait long for her to return. The plan was for her to sing Leonore in Ludwig van Beethovens Fidelio this fall. But, in what has become a template story, it was canceled along with everything else there until New Years Eve, at the earliest because of the coronavirus pandemic.
As it happens, Leonore was Davidsens final role, at the Royal Opera House in London, before her schedule was virtually erased. Now it isnt clear when or if she will bring it to the Met; like the company itself, she wont 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, Davidsens will be broadcast from the Oscarshall palace, the museum and summer residence of the Norwegian royal family.
I joined Peter Gelb, the Mets general manager, and veterans of the companys 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 Im 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, Youre right, Davidsen said. Im talking to the queen as if we know each other; Im doing this concert for the Met. For me its 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 Wagners 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, its an introduction to the recitals small yet ornate, wood-finished space, lit from behind by Scandinavian twilight and decorated with 19th-century paintings. (Its actually the dining room.)
On Thursday, Davidsen didnt appear to shrink her voice, treating the room as if it were the Met, while Baillieu matched her with the grandeur of Franz Liszts 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 Puccinis Manon Lescaut, the program shifts from Italian opera to Benjamin Brittens Johnny, from the composers Cabaret Songs written with W.H. Auden; its comparatively more playful, with comedic glissandos and an extreme depth of range that reveals Davidsens 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 shes been compared a coincidence, Davidsen said.
She wants you to think of the concerts cabaretlike turn as a program encore. You cant 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 dont need to; I dont have this cabaret kind of woman hidden, and its not a peek or preview into my future. But this is fun, and different.
Its 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 Royals 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 wasnt 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 Wagners 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 doesnt otherwise venture outside except for essentials. Inside the Deutsche Oper, both the cast and crew members are required to wear masks.
Davidsen couldnt 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 its a very different Sieglinde from what I expected, she said.
If this Walküre is particularly mysterious, its because Das Rheingold, the opera that precedes it in the cycle, was planned for June but canceled. Its like tuning in to a new TV show halfway through a season and relying on a recap to figure out whats 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 couldnt think, Davidsen said, it was so hot.
But were happy we can work, she quickly added. The fact that we get to be there is better than anything.
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