Review: A Young Soprano Meets the Hype at the Met Opera

Deep in the somber second act of Tchaikovsky’s opera “The Queen of Spades,” an old countess suddenly turns curmudgeonly critic. The culture, she complains, isn’t what it was when she was young, in the glory days of 18th-century Russia.

“They don’t know how to dance or sing,” she sniffs at the new generation. “Who dances or sings today?”

Well, there’s at least one easy answer to that question: the soprano Lise Davidsen, who made a radiant debut at the Metropolitan Opera in “The Queen of Spades” on Friday evening. Singing with confidence, power and purpose, with both freshness and maturity, Ms. Davidsen, just 32, staked a precocious claim to the great Wagner and Strauss roles that require equal parts youthful flexibility and sheer strength.

The stakes could hardly have been higher. Before she’d sung a note in public at the Met, the company had already announced that in the next three seasons she would appear as Leonore in “Fidelio,” Chrysothemis in “Elektra,” Ariadne in “Ariadne auf Naxos,” Eva in “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” and the Marschallin in “Der Rosenkavalier.”

This kind of commitment to any singer is rare — let alone to one so young, let alone in this treacherous repertory. The Met is giving over some of the most storied and challenging roles in opera to a soprano who was all but unknown just five years ago.

Then, in 2015, she won the prestigious Operalia competition, and two years later burst onto the scene as Ariadne in England, turning excited whispers about her into a roar. She signed with a major record label; she had a triumph this summer at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, the very heart of Wagneriana.

With the hype has come, inevitably, backlash. A recent post on the opera blog Parterre Box alluded darkly to opera lovers who “just don’t get that Lise Davidsen.” Someone, the writer reported, left a performance of “Ariadne” wondering “what all the fuss was about.”

So let this serve as backlash to the backlash: From her first rich, silky high note, mellow yet full-bodied, sailing out of the quintet in the first scene, Ms. Davidsen sang with poise and acted with subtle moodiness as Lisa, a rich girl whose lover decides he cares less about her than about uncovering her grandmother’s spooky secrets for gambling success.

Ms. Davidsen’s voice is creamy in texture, but with a silvery shimmer that gives it a penetrating spine. The high notes sometimes feel just separate from the rest of her voice, with the tone narrowing into bright focus, but they emerge easily, and she has the comfortably low center of gravity of a singer who started out as a mezzo-soprano.

She avoided the trap, so easy to fall into on a big night, of over-singing. Much of her performance was affecting in its delicacy: the tone quiet and luminous in her first aria and, in her final scene, slightly hooded, as if veiled in tears. Even in that desperate scene, her presence was gracefully sad rather than melodramatic, with Lisa’s suicide seeming both shocking and somehow preordained. It’s easy to get applause with a blazing high note, but Ms. Davidsen brought down the house with the low, gorgeous howl of pain with which Lisa races off to drown herself.

Her restrained yet exciting performance was matched by that of the conductor Vasily Petrenko, also making his Met debut and leading a refined, properly aristocratic performance of an opera that can be exaggerated almost into Grand Guignol. This wasn’t the most viscerally thrilling interpretation, but it was effective, building steadily in fervor.

He inspired a polished, well chosen cast in the Met’s wintry production, originally directed by Elijah Moshinsky and revived crisply by Peter McClintock. Taking on the obsessive Hermann, a daunting role that’s been called the Russian Otello, the tenor Yusif Eyvazov rang out eagerly when he pressed on his voice; his presence, like Mr. Petrenko’s conducting, was admirably melancholic, not cheaply wild-eyed.

The baritone Igor Golovatenko, in yet another company debut, was a dignified Prince Yeletsky; the baritone Alexey Markov, a suavely superb raconteur as Count Tomsky. The veteran mezzo Larissa Diadkova was a forbidding Countess, and the cool mezzo Elena Maximova made too little of her solos as Pauline. Paul Groves and Raymond Aceto were relaxed, self-assured luxuries as the laughing army officers, Tchekalinsky and Sourin.

“The Queen of Spades” is one of the best things at the Met so far this season. And it introduces a soprano who will be a pleasure to get to know so well in the coming years.

The Queen of Spades

Through Dec. 21 at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center; 212-362-6000,

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