Friday, February 17, 2006

Ewa Podles

A couple years ago, Jeff Corwin, the sexy TV naturalist, was in a bush somewhere showing us elephants. They were moving quietly in a forest, and since the animals sometimes charge unexpectedly and rapidly, it was a scary, scary situation. Corwin remarked, "What you do in the privacy of your underpants is your own business!"

I had the same thought during contralto Ewa Podles's recital in Boston tonight. As someone once said of another singer's performance: when it was all said and done, there was not a dry seat in the house.

Report coming later.


I have been slacking off way too much. Thanks to all the friendly people who visit this blog on a regularly basis. You have more faith in me than I do. Sorry to disappoint you with my profound laziness.

OK, enough guilt.

Jordan Hall is a rather intimate venue, and Celebrity Series uses it for the vocal recitals that it expects won't draw much of a crowd. (The significantly larger Symphony Hall is used for the likes of Renee Fleming, Deborah Voigt, and Cecilia Bartoli.)

Still, it's often a small but enthusiastic crowd, and this Friday night was no exception. Podles is known to have a cultish following, though she's not terribly familiar to Bostonians, given that this was the occasion of her Boston debut.

When Podles made her entrance, my eyes quickly shifted to her gorgeous accompanist, Ania Marchwinska, an elegant blonde sporting a sparkling snakeskin-textured black gown whose fit suggested couture. Podles, on the other hand, wore an unflattering sausage-like concoction that only emphasized her stumpiness. (Sorry.)

So, I got myself prepared and opened the program to the texts of the first group, Chopin songs. I thought I would read along, but when Podles opened her mouth, my jaw dropped and the program fell on my lap, neglected, for the rest of the group.

How to describe the voice? Her recordings, with which I'm not terribly familiar, do not do justice to the size, resonance, and impact of her instrument. The middle voice is pleasant, large, and bright. It's a low, bright sound. The lower register is full of baritonal resonance and can be quite thrilling. The top, at least this night, was quite short and strained, but it has been known to be agile and intense.

Rossini's Giovanno d'Arco is a great showpiece and it's perfect for a recital. In the piano introduction, I noticed Marchwinska's weird piano playing. What was she on? And no page turner? She actually paused to turn the page. And she has a Masters in Accompanying from Julliard? OK . . .

So, the first stunning moment in the Rossini came at the extended melisma on "mormorar" in the first verse, a phrase that also included one of the extremely low notes of the piece. This ridonkulously virtuosic cantata, with its fiery coloratura, numerous octave leaps, and, quite frankly, showing-off opportunities, was a winner.

Podles exhibited a certain softness and fluency (in more senses than one) in the Chopin, but in the Rachmaninov, she showed some rough edges. She lacks the legato loveliness of a Renee Fleming in "In the Silence of the Night." Requiring restraint and elegance, it's a difficult song, and she didn't pull it off. Her instrument is large and sometimes unwieldy. But in this group there was still much of her gorgeous tone, acres of pave rubies and diamonds. Holding on to the last pitch of "She is as Beautiful as Noon" created one of the great moments of the recital--as it grew it size and sound, it as was though she'd torn open a space in the hall, revealing a sparkling night sky. Does that make sense? Good.

I thought it was a bad idea to close with the Brahms Zigeunlieder, which doesn't end very climactically. Most notable was probably "Kommt dir manchmal," which was as lyrical as she got all evening.

As for the encores (there were two), "Cruda sorte" from L'Italiana was terribly fun, and we got a glimpse of Podles's comic sensibility. She's pretty old school; she doesn't go for cinematic subtlety, but uses large physical and vocal gestures. Case in point: to indicate that she'd be singing no more encores, she crossed her neck rather aggressively, albeit with a smile.

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