Right, Ewa Podleś (Madame de la Haltière), and, from left, Joyce Di Donato (Cendrillon), Madeleine Pierard (Noemie) and Kai Ruutel (Dorothee) in Massenet’s Cendrillon at the Royal Opera, 2011.Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
The preternatural quality of the voice of Polish contralto Ewa Podleś, who has died aged 71, was undoubtedly shared, but the relative frequency of her appearances in London and New York only added to the significance of the event for her devoted fans. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Podleś’s uncompromising voice was that her instrument was haunting, all-encompassing – dark, even elegant in tone – highly capable, nevertheless, characteristic of the masterpieces of the bel canto repertoire in which she appeared. excellent to negotiate.
She was a true “coloratura contralto”, with a low center of gravity, but with a range of more than three octaves. Nothing will delight her audience more than to hear her dive down deep into the baritnal register, only to be sent to the top of D at the end of an aria.
She started at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, early in her career, in 1984, stepping in late in the run of Rinaldo Handel to replace Marilyn Horne in the title role. Her own admission was not a happy occasion, and apart from a second performance in the run and a few alfresco appearances in the Met’s summer park concert series, she was not invited back there for another 24 years. In 2008 she made a triumphant return to Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, but in the minor role of La Cieca (Gioconda’s mother).
Covent Garden similarly neglected her. After making a solo appearance in Guillaume Tell, in 1990, as the hero’s wife, Hedwige, she did not appear there again for over twenty years, when she gave half a dozen performances in 2011 as Cendrillon’s stepmother, Madame de la Haltière, in Massenet’s opera, taking advantage of her magnificent chest. In 2014 she made another six appearances as La Marquise de Berkenfeld in Laurent Pelly’s third stage revival of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, similarly using her vocal assets to comedic effect.
Meanwhile Podleś was embarking on a successful career in houses such as La Scala, the Liceu in Barcelona, as well as Madrid and Berlin, and less frequently in Paris, Vienna and La Fenice, Venice. She was also very popular in the United States and Canada, giving recitals and concerts, especially in New York. In Britain she gave leading performances outside London, including Rinaldo in Birmingham on the Christopher Hogwood tour in 1999, and as Jocasta in François Girard’s Canadian Opera Company production of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex at the Edinburgh festival (2002).
Podleś was born in Warsaw, the daughter of Teresa and Walery Podleś. According to her daughter, her mother, a professional contralto and member of the chorus of the Polish National Opera, had a “very deep voice, like a man”. At the age of two, Ewa Sorrow played Alina Bolechowska’s Cio Cio San in Madama Butterfly and went on to teach at the Warsaw Conservatoire (now the Chopin University of Music). Prize winner at the 1978 International Tchaikovsky Competition, Moscow, she entered the Teatre Wielki, the Warsaw home of the national opera, the same year. In 1980 she married Jerzy Marchwinski, a pianist and professor at the conservatoire, who accompanied her to recitals and acted as her musical advisor.
She specialized in Rossini and Handel while launching florid runs throughout the program with great bravura. The enormous stamina required for roles such as Tancredi or Semiramide which she did in her stage: “I sing four and a half hours and it’s no problem.” The title roles of Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Ariodante were also among her favourites, as were the works of Gluck, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and the works of her contemporaries such as Szymanowski, Moniuszko and Lutosławski. Later in her career she moved towards heavier roles such as Verdi’s Azucena and Eboli, Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma, Erda in Wagner’s Ring – the eponymous quality of her Earth Mother rose from the depth she idealized for the role – and Klytemnestra in Electra Strauss.
Those who weren’t so vocal used adjectives like “fruitful”, even “overwhelmed” to describe it. Often those sharp passages into the chest register could also have a slightly guttural tone, but it was a sound that Podleś shamelessly deployed for dramatic effect.
In 2003 she was seriously injured when she was thrown from a car in New Mexico, suffering multiple injuries from glass and breaking her collarbone. Despite continued pain she returned to the stage six months later as Ulrica (Un Ballo in Maschera) in Detroit, later reprising the role at Carnegie Hall. The vigorous physical style of acting demanded by the theater of the modern director was never her author, but afterwards she avoided movements that would injure her. However, she had a powerful stage presence, inhabiting the role with animated facial expressions and an almost visceral intensity.
She was not an advocate of historically informed performance practice, saying: “The interpretations I offer arise from instinct and from the heart.”
Her husband died in 2023. Podleś is survived by her daughter Maria Madej and four grandchildren, as well as her stepdaughter Ania Marchwińska, with whom she collaborated as an impersonator.
• Ewa Podleś, contralto, born 26 April 1952; he died 19 January 2024