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    You're Going Out There a Soprano, But You've Got to Come Back a Diva!

    Once in a blue moon, the opera world offers its own equivalent of the equally rare Broadway occurrence when an understudy or cover takes on a leading role on short notice and almost immediately shoots to stardom, a la Shirley MacLaine in The Pajama Game.

    I had the dumb luck to be there for two such magical events. The first time it happened was in 1991, when I was seated at the Metropolitan Opera, eagerly anticipating a performance of Le nozze di Figaro that would star Felicity Lott as the Countess, only to hear the announcement that the role would instead be played by someone named Renee Fleming in her Met debut. The second time it happened was last week -- Wednesday, October 28 -- when the title role in Puccini's Turandot was sung on about two hours' notice not by Maria Guleghina but by the unheralded Lise Lindstrom, who wasn't scheduled to debut at the Met in this role until mid-November.

    Such last-minute substitutions are actually not so unusual in opera, but this one was newsworthy for the fact that Lindstrom gave a vocally superb performance in a role that's generally considered one of the most difficult in the entire repertoire. And, let's be honest: Her surprise debut was also a Big Deal in that Lindstrom happens to be a beautiful, thin, youngish woman, as compared to the MUCH larger and considerably older ladies who are so often cast as Turandot. That's a very significant matter in this case, since one of the major plot points of the opera is that Turandot's extraordinary beauty has driven dozens of men to risk having their heads cut off if they cannot solve the three riddles she proposes as a test for all potential husbands.

    Although Lindstrom's voice is not huge, it is so well-focused throughout most of its range that she had no trouble making herself heard through Puccini's gorgeous, often very thick orchestrations. Her soprano is wonderfully bright but never shrill, nor is it hampered by the wobble that often infects the voices of women who sing such punishing dramatic soprano roles. Only in her lower register does Lindstrom sometimes fail to impress; I had the impression that she was going out of her way to avoid using chest voice, a very smart decision in terms of insuring vocal longevity.

    As for the rest of the cast: Marcello Giordani sang the role of Calaf beautifully throughout the performance until he got to "Nessun dorma," when he suddenly sounded tentative and began to rush, no doubt due to the nerves engendered by having to put over one of opera's greatest hits. But Giordani pulled himself together and delivered a gorgeous high note to cap the aria, thereby earning an ovation from the audience. Marina Poplavskaya brought an interestingly dark-toned soprano to the role of Liu, and veteran bass Samuel Ramey as Timur sounded in firmer voice than in some of his other recent assignments. Joshua Hopkins, Tony Stevenson, and Eduardo Valdes were delightful as (respectively) Ping, Pang, and Pong, and it was a privilege to see and hear Charles Anthony -- who has been singing at the Met for 55 years -- as the Emperor Altoum.

    Conductor Andris Nelsons, also making his company debut, had a little bit of trouble keeping the ensemble together at certain points, but he led a performance that was nonetheless thrilling and moving by turns. All in all, it was a great night at the Met. Once again: Lise Lindstrom. Remember that name!

    Published on Monday, November 2, 2009

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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