Crazy Good: What Makes a Diva a Diva?

Two recent Met operas helped us figure it out

Kristine Opolais as Magda in Puccini’s 'La Rondine.' (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Kristine Opolais as Magda in Puccini’s ‘La Rondine.’ (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

There are artists we wish were riveting, risky, charismatic performers—but they just aren’t. For years, Renée Fleming has paired a lusciously rich voice with the excitement of a bowl of Cream of Wheat.

Elīna Garanča’s mezzo-soprano is one of the most spectacularly smooth, even sounds in the world, but on stage she exudes a chilly dullness. Angela Meade, a rising soprano who can make dazzling musical challenges sound easy, always seems to think she’s singing the phone book.

Of course, the reverse is also true. The soprano Marina Poplavskaya has left me with some of the most fascinating, indelible moments I’ve had in a theater over the past few seasons. A single hand gesture in her performance as Elisabetta in Verdi’s Don Carlo was more harrowing than many singers’ entire evenings. But her ability to carry a tune is inconsistent—a liability in an opera singer.

Tests of this distinction between good and great—or, more accurately, between great and something ineffably more than that—arrived in New York at the very start of 2013, during a two-week period that brought two noted artists to the Metropolitan Opera: the American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and the Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais.

The first has long been a house favorite. The second was appearing at the Met for the first time. Both of their vehicles—Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Puccini’s La Rondine, respectively—sit on the sidelines of the repertory, lesser-known products of famous composers. (Maria Stuarda had never before been done at the Met.)

They were two of the most anticipated performances of the season. Ms. DiDonato, 43, has made a crucial move for a mezzo: from the charming, adorable characters with which she made her reputation—Rosina, Octavian, Cherubino—to what she has called “big girl” roles like Elena in Rossini’s La Donna del Lago and Donizetti’s Mary Stuart.

For a soprano like Ms. Opolais, a decade younger, the “big girl” thing is more easily taken care of. She has already made splashes in Europe as Rusalka, Jenufa, Tosca and Madama Butterfly, and the Met has big plans for her in coming seasons.

Their two operas defined a month of unusual heroines at the Met. Out were the pitiable, frequently tubercular girls like Violetta, Lucia, Aida and Mimi. Instead of those pathetic sufferers, Met audiences have gotten Cassandra and Dido in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, as well as Mary Stuart and La Rondine’s Magda. These women are hardly exempt from heartbreak and death, but they have a degree of power and agency unusual in opera. They are vehicles for performers who can show how to live, not just how to die.

Maria Stuarda is a grand melodrama—its noble final scene is capped with a climb up to the scaffold. Ms. DiDonato sang the title role with thoughtfulness, polish and a range of colors, and she hit her acting marks diligently.

Yet at the Met, the lighter La Rondine was the work that revealed the true diva.

La Rondine, which began as a light Viennese operetta before being transformed into an Italian tearjerker, is not a natural diva vehicle, with its wispy emotions and clunky plot. The story of a kept woman who wants to escape and marry a pleasant young man, it is like La Traviata with less tragedy. (The lovers are eventually, poignantly separated, but not by death.)

Yet despite the work’s slightness, Ms. Opolais seemed to live within it, growing in stature as the evening went on and radiating the kind of aura—one that demands that you watch her, and sympathize with her—that defines a star.

That aura, when you have it, finds its way into the most seemingly insignificant details. The third act of La Rondine opens happily, with the lovers ensconced in a glamorous hotel on the French Riviera. Magda is pouring them some tea. It is a throwaway gesture, but the way Ms. Opolais raised the teapot as she poured it somehow captured, in just a second or two, the joy and pleasure of their new life.

Her performance was full of such telling moments set within a portrayal that was physically free and vocally strong. Ms. Opolais didn’t begin well: she was disturbingly inaudible at the beginning, though the entire cast struggled against Ezio Frigerio’s open-ceilinged set, which let voices vanish up into the flies.

Magda’s most famous aria comes right at the beginning, and Ms. Opolais got through it without tremendous distinction. But little by little, her voice seemed to get bigger and her acting looser. Her instrument is not quite plush, but lithe and precise. It penetrates.

She was joined by a cast, conducted by Ion Marin, not quite on her level. The premiere was an off night for Giuseppe Filianoti, who sounded at home stylistically but tight at the top of his range. Marius Brenciu’s tenor was smaller but more secure as Prunier; as his lover (and Magda’s maid) Lisette, Anna Christy’s soprano was smaller still.

It was Ms. Opolais’s evening. At the end of the opera, having left her lover, she is bathed in a spotlight, arms outstretched and face stricken. There is little room for extremity in this opera, which remains stubbornly tasteful and small in scope, but Ms. Opolais found it. Like any good operatic performance, she had become specific and mythical: the very embodiment of isolation and pain. She is a performer with a tremendous future ahead of her; New York will be lucky to have her.

The city has long been lucky to have Ms. DiDonato, an artist whose interests stretch from Baroque to contemporary opera and whose enthusiasm, onstage and off, is infectious. There is no major singer in the world today who is sweeter and more lovable.

If her Maria Stuarda ended up being affecting but not quite awe-inspiring, it may have been because of that sweetness. Donizetti’s depiction of Mary, Queen of Scots, is deeply sympathetic, but it is larger than life, an epic portrayal of a complicated woman who rages against her confinement before arriving at a transcendent acceptance.

Ms. DiDonato sang wonderfully, particularly in the soft prayers of the last act, but try as she might, she cannot will herself to be larger than life. There is always an aspect of calculation in her diva act. She hits all her marks, and it is clear that she knows what she is supposed to do. But there is a nagging sense of lack, of a performer who is game for anything but can’t quite make melodrama seem her natural habitat.

The classic “big girl” moment in Maria Stuarda comes in the finale of the first act, when Mary and Queen Elizabeth, who has imprisoned her, face off in a confrontation that is completely fictional and utterly irresistible. Mary hurls notes like cannonballs. She flings curses.

Here Ms. DiDonato, joined by the campily limping Elizabeth of Elza van den Heever, was admirable but not quite iconic, not quite insane. Joyce DiDonato does noble. She does plucky. She does not do insane.

And what is the difference between a great singer and a great diva? That. Crazy Good: What Makes a Diva a Diva?