A night for stars and tributes at the Lyric Opera’s annual concert
Creative consultant. Board member. Curator of new operas. Omnipresent poster visage and relentlessly promoted company public figure. About the only role Renée Fleming hasn’t taken on at the Lyric Opera of Chicago since her 2010 administrative appointment is that of singer.
Saturday night at the Civic Opera House, Fleming fulfilled that assignment in the Lyric Opera’s subscriber appreciation concert with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, an event that also paid tribute to William Mason who retired as the company’s general director last August.
Following intermission Mason was feted in an onstage ceremony in which he was presented with the company’s Carol Fox Award and it was announced that a Lyric rehearsal room would be named in his honor. His successor Anthony Freud, music director Sir Andrew Davis, Allan Muchin, cochairman emeritus, and Bruno Bartoletti, artistic director emeritus, all paid tribute to Mason in concise yet heartfelt remarks. Whatever one thinks about the artistic side of Mason’s tenure, the 70-year-old administrator is a modest man and, after brief grateful comments, seemed happy to yield the stage to the evening’s star guests.
As is inevitable with gala-style programs, Saturday’s performances proved rather hit and miss, more often centering on solid and sturdy rather than deep or distinctive.
Both singers’ voices are still in estimable shape, though it was hard to avoid noting inevitable changes with the passage of time. Hvorostovsky’s aristocratic baritone remains imposing though somewhat dryer on top while Fleming’s resplendent soprano seems to have slimmed down markedly and lost some of its amplitude and luster.
Still, as a bonus for Lyric Opera subscribers, it’s likely that few in the capacity house went home disappointed with a gratis opportunity to hear two of the world’s most celebrated and glamorous singers.
The duo’s four items together were a mixed bag. The extended Act One scene and duet from Simon Boccanegra proved rather low-voltage, having little of the dramatic fervor that the Russian baritone has brought to this favorite Verdi role on stage. The Act 4 duet from Il Trovatore saw Hvorostovsky more in command as a fiery Count di Luna while Fleming’s miscast, lightly projected Leonora was less on point with a perilous final note. The two duetted scenes from Massenet’s Thaïs and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin were more successful, with both artists singing in more polished fashion and bringing a greater degree of dramatic frisson and expressive detail to roles they have taken on stage. The encore of the Merry Widow waltz duet was pleasant if predictable.
No one does the melancholy nostalgia thing better than Fleming, and the soprano was heard to best advantage as Thaïs — a role she sang at Lyric in 2003 — and in Io son I’umile ancella from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, affectingly rendered with the requisite subsumed heartache.
Individually, Hvorostovsky received the most vociferous applause of the two stars Saturday — partly due to taking the vocal honors and perhaps partly his appeal to women patrons of a certain vintage, with the snow-haired Siberian swain clad in his patented open-neck black silk shirt and tight black pants. “Who is he supposed to be, Johnny Cash?” asked one female skeptic in the audience.
Hvorostovsky’s generalized performance of the Cortigiani from Rigoletto felt emailed in, conveying little of the bitter hunchback’s malign hatred. The Russian baritone was at his best, however, in Wolfram’s Song to the Evening Star from Tannhäuser, sung with a burnished glowing tone and seamless legato.
The most consistent element of the evening was the vital and elegant performances of the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis, both in backing the soloists and in the spotlight with assorted non-vocal filler by Verdi, Berlioz and Rossini/Respighi.
Perhaps it was telling that Fleming’s finest moment came in Give me some music, the first-act aria from Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. Created for Leonytne Price, this heavy role is not one Fleming would ever tackle on stage, yet the soprano delivered a layered, inner and deeply felt performance.
Let’s hope that in the coming Freud-Fleming era, we are given more music, and that at least some of it marks the return of American opera to the Lyric stage.
Posted in Performances