Lise Davidsen, star soprano of the Met, takes an Italian turn

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Lise Davidsen, star soprano of the Met, takes an Italian turn
Soprano Lise Davidsen at the Met Opera in New York, on Feb. 19, 2024. The singer, best known in the works of Wagner and Strauss, is starring in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino.” (Evelyn Freja/The New York Times)

by Joshua Barone

NEW YORK, NY.- Lise Davidsen, who grew up in Norway playing sports and considering a future in songwriting, didn’t see Italian opera onstage until she was working on her master’s degree as a budding soprano in Copenhagen, Denmark.

During her studies at the Royal Opera Academy a decade ago, she took in the classics: Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and “Tosca,” Giuseppe Verdi’s “Macbeth.” But she watched them without any thought that she would one day sing their famous roles.

They were still not on her mind when, after skyrocketing to stardom with a lightning-bright sound and power perfectly suited for the works of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 2019, in Peter Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades.”

On Monday, though, Davidsen, 37, will star in the Met’s new production of Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino.” And next season, she will sing the title role in “Tosca.” Suddenly, she has entered the world of Italian opera, taking on vastly different roles by two of its greatest composers.

“I had to work harder to convince the houses that I could even do Verdi and the Italian repertoire,” Davidsen said in an interview. “But vocally, I am quite ready.”

Davidsen has soft-launched the Italian side of her voice; last fall, she sang “Forza” in concert with the Norwegian Opera, which she described as a kind of audition for the Met run, and has included Verdi arias in her recitals.

“She is such an incredibly gifted singer, and I think it’s wonderful that she’s putting in the time to learn these roles,” said conductor Mark Elder, with whom Davidsen recorded the album “Beethoven – Wagner – Verdi” (2021).

“Everyone is looking at the Flagstad side of her,” Elder added, referring to the early 20th-century Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad, who, like Davidsen, was from Norway. “They are wondering when she is going to sing ‘Tristan.’”

He pointed, though, to the career of great Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson, who, he said, “did ‘Ballo’ and ‘Aida’ when she was younger, before she became a full-fledged Brünnhilde and Isolde and had to say goodbye to the Italian roles. They make such different demands on you, and your temperament. I hope Lise maximizes the repertoire, too.”

At the Met, Davidsen has become a go-to Wagner and Strauss singer — in “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” and “Elektra,” “Ariadne auf Naxos” and, most impressively, “Der Rosenkavalier,” in which, though relatively young, she planted her flag as an important Marschallin.

When she recorded her album with Elder and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, she added Ludwig van Beethoven to her Wagner bona fides — she is a mighty Leonore in “Fidelio,” which she will sing at the Met next season — as well as Luigi Cherubini, Pietro Mascagni and Verdi.

“It’s a vocal smorgasbord,” Elder said. “It’s a statement of intent, and it’s a statement of what someone can manage.”

Still, the Italian repertoire has required a lot of work. There is, above all, the language — not only the pronunciation, but also what Elder called “the inner poetry of the words.” Davidsen said that Puccini, in its phrasing and expression, is closer to Wagner and Strauss than Verdi, which she has found to be much more controlled.

“You can’t base yourself on the emotion of the day,” she said. “Every note has to be in control, and perfectly planned.”

And every phrase has to be breathed differently from her approach to Wagner, in which, Elder said, “the breathing comes almost grammatically in the sentences.” In Verdi, it’s more deliberate, particularly considered in long lines of melody.

During the past month, Davidsen has worked on that with the music staff of the Met, with whom she has grown warmly comfortable. “They know me,” she said, “and they want to help me sound and feel good.”

The new staging of “Forza” — by Polish director Mariusz Trelinski, whose Met credits include “Tristan und Isolde” and a double bill of “Iolanta” and “Bluebeard’s Castle” — is set in a present-day dictatorship with gestures of salute that recall Adolf Hitler’s Germany, and with the depiction of a hotel owner-turned-tyrant that evokes Donald Trump’s presidency.

Davidsen’s Leonora, the daughter of the dictator, is present throughout the staged overture, entering in a fuchsia gown and a blond wig, and stressfully smoking; soon after, in her first aria, she wistfully reflects on leaving her home. A challenge, she said, has been to meet the writing’s beauty and intimacy, while also “bringing the audience to me” the moment she starts to sing.

It helped, Davidsen said, when the Met’s orchestra — led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, its music director — joined the cast in rehearsals. “You wouldn’t think that it takes 70 more musicians,” she added, “but they really help concentrate the way I sing.”

Nézet-Séguin and Davidsen have worked together since 2019, when she sang a concert “Fidelio” with him in Montreal. This “Forza” is their first staged collaboration. He called her “the dream singer,” not only because of her voice, but also because of “the million shades that she’s finding in it.”

What sets her apart from other sopranos, he said, is “really the combination of all those qualities in the service of every style.” And she is attuned and devoted to the specific sounds, and demands, of every composer she comes across, he added.

For now, the composers with whom Davidsen is most comfortable are from the German repertoire. But, as the “Forza” opening nears, she is confident about Italian opera, too. She also feels lucky, as a star singer offered roles without an audition, that she has the opportunity to sing Leonora on a stage such as the Met’s.

“I know there are more obvious choices for this role,” she said, “so I really appreciate that they still want me to do it”; many singers wouldn’t get the chance, and “they become those one-role singers. If we’re able to trust other singers, then maybe the variety will be bigger as well.”

That’s especially important, she added, because she is aware that some won’t like her Leonora, or her Tosca next season.

“I fully stand by the fact that this is my take on them,” Davidsen said. “And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Then you go and see the next Tosca. It’s OK for me that it’s not for everyone.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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