Orchestra, chorus and billboard nearly steal the show at Lyric Opera “Stars” concert at Millennium Park

Sun Sep 08, 2013 at 12:21 pm

By Michael Cameron

Ana Maria Martinez and James Valenti perform in the Lyric Opera's concert Saturday at Millennium Park. Photo: Robert Kusel
Ana Maria Martinez and James Valenti perform in the Lyric Opera concert Saturday night at Millennium Park. Photo: Robert Kusel

One of the first and most cherished harbingers of the looming fall classical season is the “Stars of the Lyric Opera” gala at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Though ostensibly, a “free” event, a colossal, sponsor-splashed billboard placed center stage drew the eye more zealously than soloists, chorus or orchestra. With 15,000 rapt listeners and potential subscribers, it was the annoying, but perhaps inevitable price for spreading the gospel of opera.

The traditional format for these affairs shifted in 2012 at the dawn of the Anthony Freud era. Longer, dramatically organic scenes replaced the parade of isolated arias, although Saturday’s edition dialed back the ambition somewhat with a considerably more concise program.

This was the third “Stars” appearance for Puerto Rican native Ana María Martinez, and judging by the exuberant audience reaction, she has secured a sizable local fan base. The lyric soprano made a vivid impression in past seasons in Il Pagliacci, Faust, and La bohéme at the Civic Opera House, and she opens this season in October as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello, returning in February for the title role of Dvorak’s Rusalka.

Her smoky, darkly colored Cio-Cio San from Puccini’s Madama Butterly proved richly textured and emotionally resolute in Un bel di vedremo, while her love duet with James Valenti, a sonorous and powerful Pinkerton (he will star in Lyric’s Butterfly in October), proved the evening’s most affecting highlight. Laura Wilde was the clear toned and dutiful maid Suzuki.

Albina Shagimuratova made a memorable debut as Gilda in Lyric’s Rigoletto last season, and management is clearly keen to showcase this rising star. There was a hint of reticence and vocal fatigue in the opening phrases of the Mad Scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, the singer no doubt regaining her footing after a performance 48 hours earlier at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg. There have been more searing readings of this bel canto shakedown, but the Russian soprano delivered the goods most convincingly in coloratura passages, including delicious volleys of avian banter with flutist Marie Tachoet. Evan Boyer (Raimondo) and Anthony Clark Lewis (Enrico) were her superb supporting partners.

As convincing as the soloists were, the chorus and orchestra came close to stealing the show. The chorus had long been absent from these affairs until 2012, and we can only hope their return is permanent. There has been no shortage of stellar vocal ensembles on this stage, but the Lyric Opera Chorus’s account of three warhorses were among the finest heard in recent years. Fuoco di gioia from Otello and the Anvil Chorus from Il trovatore were full-throated, resonant, tautly balanced, and rich with visceral impact.

It’s hard to believe that young maestro Ward Stare was the principal trombone player for the Lyric Opera Orchestra only a few short years ago. On the basis of this performance and his widely admired Lyric podium debut in last season’s Hansel and Gretel, it’s no wonder that his gigs are piling up. He infused both orchestra and singers with palpable verve, and was utterly assured guiding the soloists through a maze of tempo changes and recitatives. Berlioz’ Overture to Beatrice and Benedict was vivid and colorful, while the Prelude to the third act of Wagner’s Lohengrin packed a bracing wallop.

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