The celebrated Polish contralto Ewa Podles died on January 19th of this year at the age of 71. The extraordinarily versatile singer particularly made her mark in the bel canto repertoire, but today’s Chris’s Cache celebrates her long connection with Handel by featuring Podles in three complete, decidedly un-HIP operas spanning over twenty years: her 1984 Met debut in Rinaldo, followed by a 1995 Orlando, and then partnering Ruth Ann Swenson in Rodelinda from 2006—all arriving just under a week after the composer’s 339th birthday.

I first encountered Podles in the flesh at a magnificent all-Rossini concert with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 1998. In addition to the expected serious Rossini arias, she also reminded us that she was once a Rosina.

I got chills from Podles that night, but I remember running into my friend, the late Patrick Giles (whom some of you might remember), who thought it was one of the worst things he’d ever heard!

That triumph was followed three years later by a wonderful all-baroque concert again with the MCO at Carnegie during which she sang arias by Vivaldi, Handel and Gluck. Perhaps because I owned her fine recording of Orphée et Eurydice, I skipped her performance of the Gluck opera with Oratorio Society of New York. I’d heard that group when it presented Orfeo ed Euridice with Janet Baker at her US farewell—difficult to compete with.

Podles was gradually leaving 18th century music behind, so my next experiences with her were in Verdi roles in which she was also arresting: Ulrica with the Collegiate Chorale in 2004 and Azucena at the 2007 Caramoor Festival. The last time I heard her didn’t rank with her best: Ciro in Babilonia again at Caramoor in 2012 found her in labored Rossini form, though I was still grateful to have heard it, as I’d missed her Tancredi and Semiramide Arsace. Why hadn’t I caught her and Nelly Miricioiu instead of Darina Takova and Daniela Barcelona when I heard Semiramide in Barcelona in 2005?

Over her long career, in addition to being an acclaimed recitalist Podles sang at many opera houses, both large and small. However, I’m confused by those who rage at the Met because Podles only sang two Rinaldos in the house then two in the parks, followed twenty-four years later by a run of five La Ciecas in La Gioconda. Podles was a highly unusual, often controversial artist who wasn’t to everyone’s taste. She didn’t seem to have a long-term relationship with any major opera house. At La Scala, for example, she performed just three roles including Ragonde in Le Comte Ory.

At Covent Garden she was Mrs. Tell in Guillaume Tell followed decades later by comic roles in La Fille du Régiment andCendrillon.

After her death, the French conductor Marc Minkowski wrote a touching tribute to her. Their most notable collaboration was her Polinesso in his DG recording of Ariodante but I’d like to put in a special word for her superbly chilling La Haine in Minkowski’s DG Gluck Armide.

Handel: Rinaldo

Almirena: Gail Robinson
Armida: Carol Vaness
Rinaldo: Ewa Podles
Argante: Samuel Ramey
Una Sirena: Diane Kesling
Goffredo: Dano Raffanti
Un Araldo: John Darrenkamp
Mago Cristiano: Arthur Thompson

Conductor: Mario Bernardi
Metropolitan Opera
14 February 1984
In-house recording

Handel: Orlando

Angelica: Nancy Argenta
Dorinda: Dorothea Röschmann
Orlando: Ewa Podles
Medoro: Annette Markert
Zoroastro: David Thomas

Conductor: Nicholas McGegan
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Grand Théâtre de Genève
4 May 1995

Handel: Rodelinda

Rodelinda: Ruth Ann Swenson
Eduige: Mary Phillips
Bertarido: Ewa Podles
Unulfo: Christophe Dumaux
Grimoaldo: Paul Nilon
Garibaldo: Philip Cutlip

Conductor: Graeme Jenkins
Dallas Opera
27 January 2006
In-house recording

Each Podles Handel opera can be downloaded by clicking on the icon of a cloud with an arrow pointing downward on the audio player above and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.

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