"Pressure Abounds as Determined Soprano Makes Debut" by Anthony Tommasini
Some extraordinary performing artists have ordinary life stories. Others, like the Swedish-born soprano Erika Sunnegardh, have dramatic life stories that, for better or worse, will tag them for their entire careers.
Ms. Sunnegardh's story is a tale of early promise, years of frustration, waiting tables and, finally at 40, the biggest break of all: a dream-come-true Metropolitan Opera debut yesterday afternoon in the role of Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio, in a coveted radio broadcast performance.
A fuller assessment will have to await her future appearances. Ms. Sunnegardh was substituting for the magnificent Karita Mattila, who was sick and who excels in this role. Moreover, Ms. Sunnegardh's story, reported yesterday by The New York Times , seems to have already traveled the world. Talk about pressure.
During Act I the pressure got the better of her, it appeared. Small-framed and attractive, she looked suitably boyish as Leonore, a heroic Spanish wife who disguises herself as a young man, Fidelio, and gains a job in a prison where she believes her husband is being unjustly and brutally held. But vocally, Ms. Sunnegardh took a long while to warm up.
Her voice has earthy colorings and warmth. She is especially comfortable in her upper range and has strong, clear top notes. Her midrange singing, though, sounded patchy yesterday.
In Leonore's aria of determination, Ms. Sunnegardh got lost momentarily and dropped a couple of phrases. She and the conductor, Paul Nadler, soon got back in sync. The error must have bothered her more than it bothered her listeners.
But after intermission, in Act II, she seemed more relaxed and took greater chances, especially in the climatic scene when she defies the tyrannical governor of the prison and saves the day. She grew stronger as the opera swept forward to its joyous conclusion.
That said, the difference between Ms. Sunnegardh's tentative performance and the work of the heldentenor, Ben Heppner, who inhabited the role of Florestan, the political prisoner, was hard to ignore. She has lost some time. But she has talent, grit and determination.
She also had the audience at the Met absolutely behind her. I wish I could say that this affecting personal story ended in artistic triumph. Not yet. Opera fans will undoubtedly get a better indication of what Ms. Sunnegardh is capable of when she sings the role again, as previously scheduled, on April 13.