First-rate sopranos are a dime a dozen these days, but a true contralto–a woman who can sing in every register of the female voice, from the deepest chest tones of an alto to the nimble coloratura of a soprano–is still hard to find. Now that Marilyn Horne is past her prime, Polish singer Ewa Podles (pronounced AY-vuh POHD-lesh) probably best represents this rare vocal type. With her three-and-a-half-octave range, she’s in many ways a throwback to the 19th-century contraltos who took over for castrati after the opera world withdrew its sanction from the gelding of boy sopranos. She claims that today’s apprentices are actually dissuaded from developing a full chest sound, and that true contraltos have been almost unheard-of for the last hundred years–even Horne is usually identified as a mezzo-soprano. Podles was panned when she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1984, singing in Handel’s Rinaldo, and as if to concede that she hadn’t been ready for the international spotlight, she didn’t tour North America again until the late 90s. Since then, however, she’s earned extraordinary praise for her distinctive timbre and incredible vocal stamina–she can sing ten arias in a single concert without flagging. She’s still occasionally criticized as too showy, even by some of her conductors, but that seems a matter of taste; to my ears her extravagance perfectly suits her bel canto repertoire–she favors Baroque roles especially, as well as operas by post-Baroque composers like Verdi and Rossini. For her local debut she’ll sing with the esteemed chamber orchestra Music of the Baroque at the opening concert of its 30th season, under the baton of music director Thomas Wikman, also a partisan of the bel canto style. The program is organized around three composers–Vivaldi, Handel, and Gluck–and Podles will perform two arias by each, excerpting Vivaldi’s Orlando furioso and Bajazet, Handel’s Rinaldo, and Gluck’s Orfee et Eurydice. The 32-member Music of the Baroque ensemble will punctuate these with five orchestral selections, four by Handel and the last by Gluck. Tuesday, November 21, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-551-1414.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrzej Swietlik.