“Stars of Lyric Opera” shine with format change

Sun Sep 09, 2012 at 2:43 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Soprano Christine Goerke performing Saturday night at the Lyric Opera’s concert in Millennium Park. Photo: Robert Kusel

Although the title was the same, this year’s “Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park” Saturday night was a remarkably different and refreshingly superior experience than its previous incarnations.

The free, pre-season outdoor concert has become a Lyric Opera tradition and has always featured the Lyric Opera Orchestra and a number of the artists that will be appearing in the regular opera season, often offering snippets of repertoire they would actually be performing.

Not this year. The Anthony Freud era has begun and although his programming choices will not be evident for a few seasons hence, the change of format says something about the kind of leadership we can likely expect from Freud as company general director.

Instead of a handful of “opera’s greatest hits,” Freud decided to bookend the evening with entire operatic acts as well as to spotlight the Lyric Opera Chorus. Even with the excerpts, the chorus and orchestra were more fully employed to provide a fuller sense of context.

The program looked odd on paper, but the proof was in the hearing. Not only did the new format convey a more effective sense of the variety present in the art form, but it also revealed a sense of opera’s remarkable ability to convey narrative and emotions.

Act I of Verdi’s La traviata opened the evening, with the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Stephen Lord offering a tender account of the Prelude before the party scene, which gave us our first glimpse of the Lyric Opera Chorus under its new chorus master, Martin Wright.

The chorus was delightfully playful with its crowd noises and transparent, buoyant and joyful in its picking up of the “Brandisi,” in which, unfortunately, tenor René Barbera had some rhythmic trouble, although he was otherwise in fine voice. The real highlight was Susanna Philips’ Violetta, her tender rendition of “È strano!” including a floating pianissimo of the climactic high note that seemed to ring out across the park.

The chorus was also spotlighted along with the Lyric Opera brass section in a chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser—not the more familiar “Pilgrims’ Chorus,” but the march and entrance of song contestants from Act II that communicated as much grandeur as the rendition of “Va pensiero” from Verdi’s Nabucco conveyed hope.

Soprano Christina Goerke, who will be making her Lyric Opera debut next month with her portrayal of Richard Strauss’ Elektra, offered a hint of the glories to come with an extraordinary traversal of the Act IV “O don fatal” from Verdi’s Don Carlos in its original French version that literally stopped the show. This is not only a large voice when it needs to be, but an instrument of remarkable expression and color with rich low tones as meaningfully placed as its spectacular high notes.

By contrast, soprano Amber Wagner, whose work has been wonderful in the opera house, displayed a singular overdone sound Saturday night for her rendition of Santuzza’s “Easter Hymn” from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana. This is an aria where the soprano should ideally emerge out of and then glide on top of the chorus, not smother it.

The evening’s finale, Act IV of Bizet’s Carmen proved somewhat anticlimactic in that both tenor Brandon Jovanovich and Ryan Opera Center mezzo J’nai Bridges oversang and seemed to be trying too hard. Still, the spectacular singing of the chorus and colorful evocation of the score by the orchestra under Lord’s careful direction managed to partially compensate.

Lyric Opera’s 2012-13 season opens at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 6 with Richard Strauss’ Elektra. 312-332-2244; lyricopera.org.

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