October 20, 2023

Divas ablaze

by Roger Pines

Nina Stemme and Lise Davidsen arrive to Lyric at the height of their powers.

On London's classical-music scene, the most coveted engagement for any artist is surely the Last Night of the Proms, the concluding event of the Royal Albert Hall's prestigious BBC Promenade Concerts. A singer appearing as the featured performer on the Last Night program is invariably someone who has achieved truly exceptional eminence worldwide. The fact that both Nina Stemme (2017) and Lise Davidsen (2023) have headlined the show says much for the stature each holds among today's operatic elite.

There's much else that connects Stemme and Davidsen. They both hail from Scandinavia — Davidsen is Norwegian, Stemme Swedish. Each owns a dramatic voice of astonishing size and breadth, deployed with deeply impressive musicality — and greeted by unrivaled critical acclaim. Among Stemme's past roles are six that Davidsen now includes in her repertoire.

At both the Metropolitan Opera (Elektra) and the Deutsche Oper Berlin (Die Walküre), the Stemme/Davidsen partnership has provided some of the most memorable performances of recent seasons. Now these two incandescent artists are paired again, this time at Lyric.

Here's a brief overview of their recent triumphs, showing why they are ideally suited to the fearful demands of their roles in Jenůfa.

Nina Stemme

The Swedish soprano's Isolde has set new standards for that most intimidating of roles. Stemme exudes consuming rage in the first act, noble womanliness in the second, and deeply moving, unearthly exultation in the "Liebestod" of Act Three. When she sings Isolde's final blissful notes, we can almost see them floating into the infinite.

Watch and listen to Stemme's Brünnhilde, in Götterdämmerung. In phrase after phrase, she colors her voice with such expressive eloquence that one can hardly imagine hearing the role being sung any other way. At the same time, she confirms her reputation as one the most utterly natural physical actresses in opera, completely believable is every move she makes. Following her 2017 performance at the Bavarian State Opera, France's distinguished journal L'Avant-Scène Opéra reported that "her Immolation Scene reached historic heights. At the final curtain, when she appeared alone, the audience rose to their feet, screaming their joy."

Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde in San Francisco Opera's 2011 production of Wagner's Siegfried.

Aida is often a perilous role for Wagner sopranos. Stemme sails through not just the grand-scale outbursts but also the most softly floated moments. Her portrayal reveals the pride of Verdi's heroine as well as the hurt — and when she's coaxing her lover into fleeing Egypt with her, it isn't just Radamès who's seduced.

Those portrayals exemplify the ease with which Stemme has mastered the pinnacles of dramatic-soprano repertoire. By mid-career it became abundantly clear that she was the true heir of her compatriot, the late Birgit Nilsson. Stemme's voice navigates with unshakeable confidence in high climaxes, but she also boasts a glorious warmth in the lower-middle range that didn't figure in Nilsson's mighty vocal armory. Hearing Stemme in Elektra's opening phrases, it's as if one could dive into the richness of that sound.

Having begun her career in lyric roles, Stemme moved into more dramatic territory only when she knew her instrument could handle it. Typical is Jenůfa: luminous as the heroine two decades ago, she's now taking on the Kostelnička. Portraying one of opera's most formidable female characters, one can expect Stemme to bring to it all the musical and dramatic gifts that make her one of the world's most distinguished singing actresses.

Lise Davidsen

Ninety years ago, Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad created a sensation in her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, revealing herself as the greatest operatic artist her nation had ever produced. Norway waited a long time to give the world a soprano with the potential to scale Flagstadian heights. They've finally found her in Lise Davidsen.

Here is a voice that can truly envelop a listener, as it reaches out effortlessly into the largest theaters. But what repeatedly astonishes Davidsen's listeners isn't just that her singing boasts luscious timbre and heroic size; it's the extraordinary command with which Davidsen can pull her sound back to create true intimacy. It enables Davidsen to launch the opening of the Rosenkavalier trio in glistening pianissimo phrases. At the same time, of course, her full-voiced high B in the trio's climactic finale is radiance itself.

Lise Davidsen performs with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the 2023 Last Night of the Proms.

It has been exhilarating for opera-lovers to watch Davidsen move from strength to strength in her still-evolving career. Both her voice and her glowing stage presence are making a deep impression as the most womanly characters in the German repertoire. Opera magazine described her Royal Opera House portrayal of Leonore in Fidelio as "glorious...[her aria was] not just a perfect demonstration of the singer's musicality but also a moment of exquisite beauty." She has also been a memorably heartfelt Chrysothemis (Elektra), Eva (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), and Ariadne; an exceptionally gracious Marschallin (Der Rosenkavalier); and a heartstoppingly passionate Sieglinde (Die Walküre). She has brought similar luster to heroines of Verdi and Tchaikovsky.

From the moment Davidsen first attracted international recognition eight years ago, the press instantly envisioned her singing opera's heaviest soprano roles. But like Flagstad before her (and like Nina Stemme), Davidsen is an intensely disciplined artist who respects her voice. She's not in a hurry — she wants the voice to last. As she continues to broaden her repertoire, she's wisely looking to roles in which warm femininity of voice and person have always been the hallmarks. Now at Lyric, in witnessing her first staged Jenůfa, all who hear Davidsen can revel in the voice and artistry that have given audiences such joy — and, indeed, such glorious hope for the future of opera.

Roger Pines, former dramaturg at Lyric, is a contributing writer to Opera News, Opera (U.K.), and major recording labels. A faculty member of Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music, he has been a panelist on the Metropolitan Opera's Opera Quiz since 2006.

NOVEMBER 12 - 26, 2023



Janáček's Jenůfa is a dark and stunning masterpiece featuring a powerful story of murder, consequence, and hope for the future. The starry cast will be led by sopranos Lise Davidsen and Nina Stemme, with Jakob Hrůša conducting Claus Guth's mesmerizing production.

Header photo: (left) Nina Stemme in Lyric's 2018/19 production of Elektra, credit: Cory Weaver / (right) Lise Davidsen as Elizabeth in Royal Opera House's Tannhäuser, credit: Clive Barda

Other photos: Cory Weaver, Chris Christodoulou