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From Wagner to Verdi: Lise Davidsen at Carnegie Hall and the Met Opera

Lise Davidsen, La Forza del Destino, Met Opera
Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The Met's current revival of Verdi's La Forza Del Destino - which will be broadcast live in HD and on the radio this Saturday - has garnered both positive and negative reactions, mostly having to do with Mariusz Treliński's bleak modernist staging, as well as some uneven singing among the cast. But, I was mostly concerned with the collective assessment of soprano Lise Davidsen as Leonora, who is making her stage debut in the role. (She sang a concert version with Norwegian Opera last fall.) Verdict: a mixed bag over the opera's 4 1/2 hour length, but she is unassailable in her solos, particularly the show-stopping Act 4 aria, "Pace, pace, mio Dio." (You can hear the full performance here.)

Frankly, Davidsen can afford some tepid reviews considering the splash she's made since her Met debut five years ago in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades. Since then, she's wowed New York audiences - including me - with her soaring, impossibly voluminous voice in roles such as Eva in Wagner's Die Meistersinger, Chrysothemis in Richard Strauss' Elektra, and the title role in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. The Times' Zachary Woolfe says of Davidsen: "There are vanishingly few artists in the world (today) singing with such generosity, sensitivity and visceral impact."

Tackling Italian opera for the first time at the Met, Davidsen is boldly stepping outside of her comfort zone, requiring a warmer, more fluid style than the meaty German repertoire in which she excels. And, while she isn't yet on par with the great Verdi divas of yesteryear, Davidsen manages to pack an emotional punch, having spent long hours developing the phrasing and fluid tone this music requires.

“I had to work harder to convince the houses that I could even do Verdi and the Italian repertoire,” Davidsen told the Times recently. “But vocally, I am quite ready.”

lise davidsen, met orchestra, carnegie hall, 2/1/24As rare a talent as Davidsen is, there are even fewer singers of her stature so disarmingly normal. Davidsen, 37, comes across in interviews as the female version of Wagner's Siegfried: simultaneously superhuman and innocent, regal and down-to-earth. (Favorite restaurant: "Rosa Mexicano, they have an amazing guacamole!") A native of a small Norwegian village two hours from Oslo, Davidsen started out with dreams of being a singer-songwriter before transitioning to vocal studies at the Grieg Academy in Bergen and the Royal Opera Academy in Copenhagen. Her breakthrough came in 2015 when she won Placido Domingo's Operalia competition; engagements at the world's top opera houses soon followed.

I haven't yet heard Davidsen's Leonora in person, but I did manage to see her last month when she made her Carnegie Hall debut with the Met Orchestra, led by the Met's music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin (who is also conducting her in Forza.) For that occasion, Davidsen chose Wagner's song cycle Wesendonck Lieder (1858), in which she displayed both gleaming top notes and a dark burnished tone. But that was nothing compared to her encore, "Dich, teure Halle" ("Beloved Hall, I greet you!") from Wagner's Tannhauser. Davidsen blew the roof off of the Stern Auditorium with her effortless display of vocal power, penetrating the furthest reaches of the upper balcony. From the audible gasps in the audience, I wasn't the only one with the sense we were participating in a major event: a generational talent boldly announcing her arrival. As someone who never got to hear Kirsten Flagstad or Birgit Nilsson - iconic Scandinavian divas to whom Davidsen is already being prematurely compared - all I could think was: it's a privilege to be alive at a time when I can witness such a wondrous thing.

For their part, the Met Orchestra - who, like the Vienna Philharmonic, split their time between the opera house and concert stage - played with their usual mix of technical precision and theatrical flair that remains unique among American orchestras. Alongside the Wagner, they also gave a fine reading of Anton Webern's orchestration of Bach's "Fuga" from A Musical Offering and an epic performance of Mahler's 5th symphony that was equal parts bombast and pathos, with Yannick pushing things to a breakneck speed at the end. But, for me and I imagine for most in the hall that night, the moment belonged to Davidsen.

You can see - or hear - Davidsen as Leonora in La Forza del Destino tomorrow (3/7) starting at noon at the Met or at a movie theater near you. Her performances continue through March 16 when she hands the role over to Elena Stikhina, but Davidsen has already booked her return to the Met next season with two new roles that expand her range even further: Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio and the title role in Puccini's Tosca. I can't wait for both. lise davidsen, met orchestra, carnegie hall, 2/1/24