From Norway With Horsepower: Soprano Lise Davidsen Is Conquering Opera

Mar 25, 2021
Originally published on March 25, 2021 4:47 pm

A young, mild-mannered soprano from Norway with a huge voice has been turning heads in the opera world.

Lise Davidsen is an emerging star whose voice has been called one-in-a-million. It can soar like a rocket over enormous orchestras. And yet on her new album, in the Verdi aria, "Pace, pace mio Dio!" it can dial down to a single gleaming strand of polished silver.

Not so long ago, Davidsen was a guitar-strumming, handball-playing kid from Stokke, a rural town in southern Norway. It took her a while to discover opera; she was 20 before she saw her first staged production. Now, only in her early 30s, Davidsen sings at distinguished venues such as New York's Metropolitan Opera and London's Covent Garden. Her second album, simply titled Beethoven, Wagner, Verdi – with Mark Elder leading the London Philharmonic – shows us where she's at today, but also hints at her destiny. And that destiny points directly to Wagner.

Davidsen's performance of Wagner's set of songs called Wesendonck-Lieder offers moments of tenderness and torrential power. Opera mavens are always on the lookout for the next great Wagnerian soprano, and Davidsen's voice appears tailor-made for the mammoth Wagner roles like Isolde and Brünnhilde. Those will come in time, perhaps, but only if she's smart and doesn't try on roles that are too big too soon.

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Wielding this super-charged instrument must be like driving a high-performance sports car. In the big aria from Beethoven's opera Fidelio, Davidsen can push from zero to sixty on a dime, in terms of amplitude, but the key factor is that she knows how to control her voice.

While Davidsen might be considered a specialist in the German repertoire – especially Richard Strauss and Wagner – this new album displays her Italian appetite. Along with scenes from Verdi's Otello and La forza del destino, she includes arias from two operas she's already sung on stage: Pietro Mascagni's gritty thriller Cavalleria Rusticana and Luigi Cherubini's gut-wrenching Medea.

Really big voices like Davidsen's can sometimes be steely and cold. But hers has both heft and beauty up and down the registers. Recordings, alas, rarely do justice to the real thing. For instance, there are places on the album where Davidsen's voice is inexplicably too far back in the audio mix for my taste.

This is the kind of voice you need to hear in person. Still, until we can safely take our seats in the opera house, Lise Davidsen's album shows off a beautiful, formidable instrument, and a singer poised for the history books.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Opera fanatics go a little bit nuts when they hear a voice like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LISE DAVIDSEN: (Singing in non-English language).

CORNISH: That's Lise Davidsen, a young soprano from Norway with a big voice. Her new album includes music by Beethoven, Wagner and Verdi. And our reviewer, NPR's Tom Huizenga, has been basking in the sounds of an emerging star.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Lise Davidsen's voice has been called one-in-a-million. It can soar like a rocket over enormous orchestras. And yet, in this Verdi aria, it can dial down to a gleaming strand of polished silver.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIDSEN: (Singing in non-English language).

HUIZENGA: Not so long ago, Davidsen was a guitar-strumming, handball-playing kid from a rural town in Norway. It took her a while to discover opera. She was 20 before she saw her first stage production. Now only in her early 30s, Davidsen sings in places like New York's Metropolitan Opera and London's Covent Garden.

Her second album, simply titled "Beethoven, Wegner, Verdi," shows us where she's at today, but also hints at her destiny. And that points directly to Wagner.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WESENDONCK-LIEDER")

DAVIDSEN: (Singing in non-English language).

HUIZENGA: That's Davidsen singing a set of Wagner songs called "Wesendonck-Lieder." Opera mavens are always on the lookout for the next great Wagnerian soprano, and Davidsen's voice appears tailor-made for the mammoth Wagner roles like Isolde and Brunnhilde. Those will come in time, perhaps, but only if she's smart and doesn't try on roles that are too big too soon.

Wielding this super-charged instrument must be like driving a high-performance sports car. Davidsen can push from zero to 60 on a dime in terms of amplitude, but she knows how to control it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIDELIO")

DAVIDSEN: (Singing in non-English language).

HUIZENGA: Davidsen, evoking the fearless title character in Beethoven's "Fidelio." But while she might be considered a specialist in the German repertoire - especially Richard Strauss and Wagner - this new album displays her appetite for Italian opera, including Pietro Mascagni's gritty thriller, "Cavalleria Rusticana."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIDSEN: (Singing in non-English language).

HUIZENGA: Really big voices like Davidsen's can sometimes be steely and cold, but hers has heft and beauty. Recordings, alas, rarely do justice to the real thing. For instance, there are places on the album where Davidsen's voice is inexplicably too far back in the audio mix for my taste.

This really is the kind of voice you need to hear in person. Still, until we can all safely take our seats in the opera house, Lise Davidsen's album shows off a beautiful, formidable instrument, and a singer poised for the history books.

CORNISH: The album is "Beethoven, Wagner, Verdi" by Lise Davidsen, with Mark Elder leading the London Philharmonic. Our reviewer is NPR's Tom Huizenga.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIDSEN: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.