Ottawa has not traditionally been a “tryout city,” a place where leading performers come to take artistic risks. This is unfortunate, as we—and in particular, the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival, celebrating 20 extraordinary years—have all the ingredients, including appreciative audiences notorious for giving frequent standing ovations. 

Has a new precedent been set? This week, a bona fide star took the plunge and, making her Ottawa debut, allowed us a peak at what may be the next stage in her remarkable career. Sondra Radvanovsky, the world’s undisputed leading Verdi soprano (a silly title which means she sings operatic roles by Verdi at all the top opera houses around the planet and does so arguably better than anyone else), lent her luminous voice to Chamberfest for what was an unexpectedly unique recital.

As CBC Radio’s Laurence Wall explained, Ms. Radvanovsky is a “Canadian by choice”—the diva later asked if anyone in the audience might be able to assist her with speeding up the citizenship process! Though she spends most of her time in the world’s arts meccas—she had just sung Puccini’s Tosca at London’s Royal Opera House before this recital — the soprano was able to scale back her immense vocal and dramatic presence to suit the warm acoustics of Dominion-Chalmers United Church and connect with an audience more accustomed to piano quintets than grand arias. The results were unforgettable for audience members, as hers is a voice that really must be heard live. (I first heard her as Verdi’s Aida at the Canadian Opera Company).

But perhaps most remarkable was the absence of Verdi arias which audiences have come to associate with Ms. Radvanovsky, most notably those of Leonora in Il Trovatore, which marked the soprano’s debut in the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series, which broadcasts in more than 60 countries, giving singers unprecedented global exposure.

Instead of resorting to the tried-and-true, we were treated to a highly varied programme of Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Cilèa, Duparc, Massenet, Copland, and yes, Verdi. A rare diva who enjoys chatting with her audience to explain song selections and lessen the formality of the recital setting, she let us know that this was her first public performance of the aria, “Pleurez! Pleurez mes yeux!” from Massenet’s Le Cid. She made a strong case for this often overlooked opera.

My personal highlight was Beethoven’s Ah! Perfido, a long concert aria that requires Mozartean agility in addition to dramatic weight. Quite a way to begin a recital, and Ms. Radvanovsky clearly needed no additional warm-up time. Perhaps she was hoping to get this challenging piece over with right out of the gate.

In lieu of Trovatore arias, we were treated to three art songs by Verdi, one with a melody that was later inserted, in whole, into that opera. They were inspired choices, allowing Ms. Radvanovsky to demonstrate why she has become her generation’s definitive Verdi soprano.

Four gorgeous pieces by Rachmaninov, including “Ne poy krasavitsa pri mne” were evidently meaningful for the soprano.  Her Russian seemed very good to me, though it was difficult to erase memories of Anna Netrebko’s performances of these songs with Daniel Barenboim.

Several songs by Duparc and Copland required the soprano to scale down her cavernous voice even further. “Extase” and “At the River” were particularly well received, and Ms. Radvanovsky appears mercifully free of the mannerisms that have belaboured Renée Fleming’s recent performances of this French and English repertoire. Moreover, Ms. Radvanovsky projected an undeniably genuine connection to these pieces, and the audience responded in turn.

Finally, after nearly two hours we were able to hear her blow the roof off with Verdi’s “Pace, pace mio dio” from La Forza del Destino. Most impressive, here and elsewhere throughout the recital, were assured portamento and pianissimos. Just before the vamp of “Pace, pace” began, Ms. Radvanovsky turned to her faithful accompanist, Anthony Manoli—excellent—and said, “let’s do it.” What a delight to hear this acclaimed singer sounding so confident and relaxed!

For our sustained shouts of “brava” we were treated to two encores: Puccini’s soaring “O mio babbino caro” and—taking a page once again from Ms. Fleming — a somewhat unusual version of “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady.

But crowd-pleasing warhorses aside, Ottawa had the rare privilege of watching one of the world’s most in-demand singers stretch herself in ways many of her fans may never have predicted. I understand Ms. Radvanovsky will continue barnstorming her way through Donizetti’s “Three Queens”—extraordinarily difficult roles—and expanding her slate of Verdi heroines. However, now that I have heard her explore new avenues, I look forward to seeing how she engages with Russian, French, and verismo repertoire at this exciting point in her career.

Photo: Freedom Photography via Facebook