Fleming and friends preview Lyric Opera season at Millennium Park

Sun Sep 11, 2011 at 12:04 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Renee Fleming performed and acted as host for the Lyric Opera’s preview concert Saturday night in Millennium Park. Photo: Robert Kusel

The moon was full and the stars were out in force on stage at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park Saturday night.

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s free concert in the park has become an annual fall ritual, and this year’s installment offered Lyric’s trademark mix of big names (Renée Fleming, James Morris) and an enticing selection of exciting newer voices. The park was packed to its 16,000 capacity, and a happy buzz about Lyric’s 57th season, which opens Oct. 1 with Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, was palpable in the balmy air.

Anthony Freud, who succeeds William Mason as Lyric’s general manager on Oct. 1, welcomed the crowd, but Renée Fleming, the company’s new creative consultant, was de facto master of ceremonies. Swathed in raspberry satin, she opened the concert with a heartfelt jazz-inflected version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s You’ll Never Walk Alone to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. She returned for the dreamy Barcarolle duet from Hoffmann with mezzo-soprano Emily Fons, a member of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center. Fleming closed the evening with a flirty Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust.

Lyric has unveiled a snappy new advertising campaign, but the new crop of fresh, young voices was an even better advertisement for the coming season. One of the thrills of this kind of concert is hearing astounding singing from artists you might not know well. Accompanied by conductor Emmanuel Villaume and a crisply responsive Lyric orchestra, soloists including mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, sopranos Anna Christy and Susanna Phillips and tenor Rene Barbera provided that kind of thrill on Saturday night.

Christy is no stranger to Lyric, having appeared in William Bolcom’s The Wedding as well as Dialogue of the Carmelites and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But her crystalline tone and liquid ornaments in a showcase aria from Donizetti’s rarely performed Linda di Chamounix made it clear that her performances as Olympia in Hoffmann and Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos should be highlights of Lyric’s season.

American mezzo Jamie Barton was the discovery of the evening. A grand finalist in the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions in 2007, she was riveting as the mournful young Leonor in O mon Fernand…Mon arret descend du ciel from Donizetti’s La favorite. Her voice was rich with myriad colors, full of velvety smoke in its lowest register and ringing with clarion strength at its upper reaches. Standing quietly, she conveyed a depth of regret and loss that was profoundly moving.

Phillips and Barbera brought passion and elegant singing to the duet from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Barbera tossed off his top notes with easy aplomb in the familiar Ah, mes amis from the composer’s The Daughter of the Regiment. Phillips was full of youthful exuberance in Juliet’s Act One Ariette from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliette.

Tenor Matthew Polenzani was suffering from a cold, but he sounded ardent and virile in Pourquoi me reveiller from Massenet’s Werther. A Lyric favorite, the Wilmette native will opens Lyric’s season with his debut as the title poet in The Tales of Hoffmann.

Morris’ bass-baritone has lost some focus, but its oaky grain and Morris’ expressive phrasing added power to a stirring duet from Bellini’s I puritani with Croatian baritone Ljubomir Puskaric.

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