The Elemental Power of Ewa Podles

Ewa Podles uses old-fashioned acting to accompany her old-style singing.
Ewa Podles uses old-fashioned acting to accompany her old-style singing. (Courtesy Matthew Sprizzo)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

BALTIMORE -- Ewa Podles, the Polish contralto with a three-octave range and a cult following, has appeared in Washington with some regularity over the years, thanks to the Vocal Arts Society. She has also appeared in Baltimore, where she and the pianist Garrick Ohlsson were presented by Shriver Concerts on Sunday afternoon; and in other opera houses and concert series around the country.

Where she has not appeared regularly is the Metropolitan Opera, which declined to invite her back after her 1984 debut as Handel's Rinaldo. The Met did not think the husky-sounding contralto was "our kind of voice," or so rumor had it. It took 24 years for her to appear there a second time: In September, she retook the Met stage as the blind mother (La Cieca) in Ponchielli's potboiler "La Gioconda."

She had a triumph: For once, La Cieca made a more powerful impression than Gioconda herself.

Podles (pronounced PODE-lesh), 56, is not everyone's cup of tea. She is an old-fashioned singer, in the best sense. Her voice goes way down into a chest register that today is more associated with the grandes dames of Broadway belting. It also goes up -- perhaps no longer quite to the stellar high notes of her "Rossini Arias" album (one of my favorite solo-singer albums of all time), but to a comfortable and impressive top.

It also has a distinctive presence. Listening to Podles in Sunday's opening set of five Chopin songs from Op. 74 was like sinking into layers of baklava -- sturdy and rich and sweet and sticky. In an age that emphasizes the clean, thin lines of voices that shine on recording, Podles offers a cavernous vacuum of sound that frames the firm core of her voice in an audible aureole of air. It has changed over the years; on Sunday, she appeared to have lightened and smoothed out the upper part of her voice, still firmly based on the massive pedestal of those deep lower notes, to offer what you might call a prettier version of Podles.

Pretty, however, is a misleading term; "elemental" is more like it.

She offers old-time acting to match her old-time vocal style, and this is not to everyone's taste, either. Some might be put off by the melodramatic gestures: head thrown back, arms outstretched. But to others, the point is that each song (Sunday's program included a set by Tchaikovsky as well as Mussorgsky's cycle "Songs and Dances of Death") is distinctly imagined and conveyed, from the muted resignation of Chopin's "Pierscien" to the anguish of "None but the Lonely Heart."

At worst, it can be a little overdone. The emotion of Chopin's "Merrymaking" was more likely to inspire alarm in the heart of the innocent maiden subjected to such violent swaggering from her swain.

Podles and Ohlsson have become such a duo that the pianist was able to play the accompaniments from memory. His presence is deluxe casting, particularly when it came time for his own solo set of Scriabin after the interval; he played as compellingly as she sang, with an odd kind of chewy sound as distinctive in its own way as her voice. The Mussorgsky fell off for me, a bit. Podles touched on Wicked Witch territory in these bleak songs about four faces of death, cackling evilly; I have heard her do them more imposingly. But there are not many singers able to make such an effect in any music.

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