Lise Davidsen Is an Opera Star Worth Traveling For

A new pop song is the same streamed anywhere. And if you wanted to see Beyoncé this year, she likely came to a town not far from you, giving pretty much the same show in Barcelona as she did in Detroit.

But an opera star doing a role in Berlin or London doesn’t mean she’ll bring it to New York. When it comes to the art form’s greatest singers, there are things you simply can’t hear by staying put. And Lise Davidsen is worth traveling for.

Davidsen, the statuesque 36-year-old soprano with a flooding voice of old-school amplitude, has been singing the title character in Janacek’s crushing “Jenufa” at Lyric Opera of Chicago this month. Though she has been a regular presence at the Metropolitan Opera — where she will star in a new production of Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” in winter — there’s no promise she’ll ever perform Jenufa there.

So for those of us who hear in Davidsen’s rich, free tone the kind of golden-age instrument we otherwise know mostly through glimpses on old recordings, it was a privilege to be in Chicago.

The added incentive was that the redoubtable soprano Nina Stemme would be onstage with her. At 60, Stemme is stepping away from the kind of dramatic touchstones, like Isolde and Brünnhilde, that Davidsen is gradually stepping into.

Pavel Cernoch and Nina Stemme in “Jenufa,” directed by Claus Guth.Credit…Michael Brosilow

Davidsen and Stemme in “Jenufa,” conducted by Jakub Hrusa, the young conductor recently appointed music director of the Royal Opera in London, in a grimly spare staging by Claus Guth: This was a coup for Lyric, especially since the Janacek has been running alongside a winning cast in Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment,” as fizzily charming as “Jenufa” is desperately sad.

Seen over the course of 24 hours this weekend, the pairing shows off the best of a venerable company that has been struggling in the pandemic’s aftermath, along with much of the American performing arts scene. Its chief executive, Anthony Freud, announced in September that he would step down this coming summer, two years before the end of his contract.

Freud, 66, is retiring as the gap between opera’s costs and the demand for tickets grows ever wider. Financial pressures have prompted the company to pare back its performances; Lyric’s current season features just six mainstage productions, compared to eight in the last full season before the pandemic.

But this was a weekend Freud could be proud of. The title character of “Jenufa,” set amid tangled romantic and familial relationships in a Moravian village in the 19th century, is secretly pregnant by a man who refuses to marry her. Her stepmother, a civic figurehead known as the Kostelnicka, desperate to keep the family from disgrace, kills the baby, a crime whose discovery leads to a stunned, sublime gesture of forgiveness.

For this raw, agonized story, Janacek wrote tangy, lush yet sharply angled music, with unsettled rhythms and roiling depths; obsessively repeated motifs, as anxious as the characters; passages of folk-like sweetness; vocal lines modeled on spoken Czech for uncanny naturalness even in lyrical flight and emotional extremity; and radiant climaxes.

Davidsen’s upper voice is her glory: steely in impact but never hard or forced, emanating like focused shafts of sunlight. (In Janacek’s fast, talky music, the middle of her voice didn’t project as clearly, but this is a quibble.)

For a singer of such commanding capacity, she is remarkably beautiful in floating quiet. She played the character with prayerful dignity, reminiscent of Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello”; at the beginning of the third act, when Jenufa starts to think her suffering might finally be behind her, Davidsen registered on her face and in her freshening tone a cautious but real happiness. This is a singer who acts with her voice.

I’ve always thought of Jenufa and the Kostelnicka as antagonists — a spirited youngster facing a repressive older generation — but this performance movingly suggested they are more alike than different: two independent-minded women, both isolated from the village mainstream. And Stemme’s voice remains strong and even; this is not your standard acid-tone Kostelnicka; in soft duet at the start of Act II, she and Davidsen made a combination that evoked “Norma”-like bel canto.

Hrusa supported that sensitivity on the podium. His vision of the score emphasizes its sheer beauty, encouraging smooth lyricism and a kind of musical patience, letting the drama unfold rather than spurring it on. Sometimes this feels like mildness, at the expense of spiky intensity. But that this “Jenufa” is played something like a sustained hymn often heightens the aching tragedy.

Guth’s production emphasizes the uniformity and repetition that define this small town’s small-mindedness. A prisonlike atmosphere prevails in Michael Levine’s airy yet forbidding set, Gesine Völlm’s constricting costumes and James Farncombe’s lighting, all leached of color.

Metal bed frames that line the walls in the first act are arranged, in the second, to form an eerie enclosure, reminiscent of a refugee camp, in which Jenufa has been hidden to give birth. An ominous crowd of women in “Handmaid’s Tale”-style bonnets lurks on the sidelines; a dancer is dressed as a slow-stalking raven. The folk-wedding dresses that finally add brightness in Act III convey genuine joy after so much ashy heartbreak.

Fizzy joy: Lisette Oropesa in Laurent Pelly’s production of “La Fille du Régiment” at Lyric Opera.Credit…Michael Brosilow

That kind of joy permeates “La Fille du Régiment,” one of the repertory’s most delightful comedies, presented in Chicago in the winkingly stylized Laurent Pelly production that has been at the Met since 2008. (The mountain range made of old maps is still superbly silly.)

Lisette Oropesa and Lawrence Brownlee are both sprightly in Donizetti’s stratosphere-touching coloratura; this opera is famous for a tenor aria with nine high Cs, and after an ovation Brownlee repeated it with flair. But the pair are even better in the score’s slower-burning, longer-arching passages of tenderness.

Lyric Opera of Chicago may be in serious trouble; its chief may be taking an early exit. But, having attracted Oropesa and, especially, Davidsen to the company for these memorable debuts, Freud is leaving on a high note.

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