The venues couldn’t have been more different: the Metropolitan Opera’s enormous 3,800-seat auditorium welcomed Lise Davidsen, while the Park Avenue Armory’s Restored Board of Officers Room hosted Julia Bullock and just over a hundred lucky audience members. As it turned out, each auditorium proved ideally suited to its performer. Bullock’s subtly intimate art drew the listener close, while Davidsen’s bold dramatic soprano blossomed thrillingly in the Met’s vast expanses.
Those who ordinarily cringe when performers speak to their audiences were doubtless won over by the charming and heartfelt commentary that peppered both singers’ performances. Each eloquently shared the thought behind the admirably eclectic programs she was presenting. Davidsen bubbled with excitement at her return to the Met, where she’s had some of her most noteworthy operatic successes. When Bullock forgot the text of one of her songs, she apologized explaining she’d been awake since 4:30 that morning tending to her 10-month-old infant. She was quickly forgiven by some who had recently experienced tenors Michael Spryes and Allan Clayton singing their Armory recitals from behind distracting music stands.
It used to be that piano-accompanied vocal recitals were predictably arranged around five or six groupings of songs, and the audience would hold its applause until after each group. Davidsen joked knowingly about those expectations when she picked up her wireless microphone in the middle of her first set of songs by Edvard Grieg. She informed us that she relished performing the first three in her native Norwegian, but the three that followed her remarks would be in German. This opportunity to bring music by Scandinavian composers to the Met clearly moved her and though the Grieg found her a bit unsettled, four expansive songs by Sibelius suited her wonderfully.
Most song recitals don’t include arias but Davidsen brought four that expanded the limited repertoire we’ve heard from her at the Met so far. A pair of Verdi excerpts left an equivocal impression: though she’d previously included it in the live-streamed Met Stars Live in Concert in 2020, Amelia’s second aria from Un Ballo in Maschera remains a work in progress (though its cadenza throbbed with agonized despair). Both it and Desdemona’s subdued Ave Maria from Otello made questionable her casting in the Met’s new La Forza del Destino.
However, two days after her Met recital, the BBC relayed a broadcast of Don Carlo from Covent Garden that featured Davidsen as Elisabetta, her first Verdi role. She embodied the embittered queen with sympathetic authority, and I now cautiously look forward to her Forza Leonore. The plangent aria from Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, the opera of her 2019 Met debut, showed how much Davidsen has grown as an artist: she now conveyed Lisa’s dread with unerring conviction. Her calling card, Elisabeth’s ecstatic “Dich. teure Halle” from Tannhäuser, brought the first half to a rousing conclusion, reminding Wagnerians that she may be the Brünnhilde and Isolde they have been praying for.
The recital’s most satisfying selections proved to be songs by Richard Strauss and, most unexpectedly, by Franz Schubert. Davidsen’s Met Ariadne auf Naxos, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier have established her as a Strauss exemplar, which her glowing renditions of “Allerseelen” and “Zueignung” upheld. Realizing that some may have been puzzled at her programming of four of Schubert’s most famous songs—works not normally associated with such a voluminous voice—she explained that she was encouraged to embrace songs she loved and perform them in her own way. If she didn’t quite differentiate the contrasting voices of “Erlkönig,” her gripping “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and softly spun “Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen,” both aided by extraordinarily accomplished pianist James Baillieu, ardently proved her efforts.
To conclude her concert, Davidsen repeated a showy aria from Kálmán’s operetta Die Csárdásfürstin that she had sung a few days earlier at the Last Night of the Proms in London. Its concluding blow-torch high note likely singed the Met’s rafters. If much of “I Could Have Danced All Night” laid in the least effective part of her voice, she concluded it with a show-stopping high C. “Vissi d’arte,” her inevitable encore, meandered a bit before its splendid climax, but her final song, Grieg’s lovely “Våren,” sent her audience home very happy.
Overall, Davidsen’s earnest demeanor and endearing commentary made her singing feel warmer than it actually was. At times, her voice exuded what a retired local critic loved to describe as “cool Nordic colorings.” Her striking top register can occasionally emerge harshly, although this tendency was less noticeable in person than on recordings or broadcasts. The seamless evenness of her voice across its registers made even the most challenging music sound effortless.
Meanwhile, Bullock’s luminously delicate yet rangy lyric soprano had no difficulty in filling the Armory’s tiny space, but I’ve read suggestions that it might be too small for the Met where she’ll debut this spring in John Adams’s El Niño. It’s fitting that her first appearance will be in an Adams work, as the composer has written his last two operas expressly for her: Girls of the Golden West and Antony and Cleopatra.
Since first attracting attention as a student at Juilliard, where she excelled in the title roles of The Cunning Little Vixen and Cendrillon, Bullock has dived deeply into rarer repertoire with a searching artistic inquisitiveness. Her Armory program included revelatory examples of her explorations into the work of African-American women like Alberta Hunter, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. John Arida, Bullock’s modest accompanist, was especially impressive in these bluesy numbers. A searing pair of Simone songs—“Revolution” sung unaccompanied in an arrangement by Bullock herself and “Four Women” arranged by Jeremy Siskind—might have left her audience utterly devastated if she hadn’t followed them with a hymn-like rendition of Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free.”
Following a fascinatingly personal She Is Asleep (II. Duet) by John Cage with Arida on prepared piano, Bullock performed the recital’s second half with hypnotic grace in a mellow, tear-streaked mezzo. For her single encore, the protean singer returned once more to her golden soprano for a light-as-air “Seligkeit” by Schubert. Rarely have I attended a recital during which a singer wielded such a spellbinding array of vocal colors, which she accessed with astonishing ease.
Her radiant first set by Schubert and Wolf was serenely sung with hands discreetly clasped, but she then delivered two tongue-twisting German songs by Kurt Weill with pointedly flamboyant gestures. Her chameleonic juxtaposition of two of Rossini’s “Mi lagnerò tacendo” with three Luciano Berio popular song arrangements recalled the breathtaking versatility of fellow American Cathy Berberian, for whom Berio originally arranged his pieces. Her crystal-clear diction made glancing at the provided texts and translations almost unnecessary.
Opera wags sometimes divide prima donnas into two camps: dubbing them either kunst-divas (those whose strengths are interpretive) or stimme-divas (those who offer first and foremost a magnificent voice). To describe this pair of sopranos with either would be unfairly reductive. Davidsen’s sensitive interpretive choices showed her to be more than a prodigious vocal phenomenon, while Bullock’s genuinely lovely and impressively wide-ranging soprano is always used in service of her piercing intelligence—she even provided several of the translations in the program.
The Met is lucky to be featuring these young stars in the company’s eagerly awaited new productions next year! But not so fast—first Davidsen will unveil her latest step toward opera superstardom: a Christmas album!