Lyric Opera artists take flight “Beyond the Aria” at Harris Theater

Wed Oct 22, 2014 at 1:05 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Mezzo-soprano J'nai Bridges performed with pianist Craig Terry at the "Beyond the Aria" program Tuesday night at the Harris Theater.
Mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges performed with pianist Craig Terry at the “Beyond the Aria” program Tuesday night at the Harris Theater.

Lyric Opera is on a roll.

After opening its 60th season with a world-beater Don Giovanni and equally acclaimed Capriccio, three of its artists were featured in the Harris Theater’s first “Beyond the Aria” program on the enclosed stage of the Pritzker Pavilion Tuesday night. Once again Lyric (amd Harris) knocked it out of the park with a sensational evening of lieder and popular song performed by Ana Maria Martinez. J’nai Bridges and Bo Skovhus.

The Harris Theater’s “Beyond the Aria” series is intended as an informal showcase for Lyric Opera artists to relax with lighter song favorites. Harris did a neat double reverse of the Pritzker Pavilion, converting the Millennium Park stage into an intimate cabaret. Lyric Opera donors, Harris officials, and well connected patrons were seated at cocktail tables on the stage—including artistic advisor Renee Fleming on a night off from Capriccio at a front table. The proles and riffraff commoners (including most of the press) were relegated to the choral seating above, which offered a better visual vantage point though, alas, no table service.

Vocal recitals remain rare events in downtown Chicago and any effort to increase the offerings is welcome, particularly with the kind of stellar vocalism on tap Tuesday night.

There were two issues, one solvable, one probably not. The repertory, happily, was much meatier and more substantial than advance word indicated. Yet the program book, unhappily, gave no clue whatsoever about the works bring performed. The vocal introductions helped in some regard but were not always clear—Ana Maria Martinez’s soft speaking voice, in particular, didn’t carry well to the back of the loft. We get that the atmosphere is supposed to have a club-like informality, but there’s no point in keeping the selections a state secret from everyone, audience members as well as harried critics. Many items were familiar but even aficionados would be hard pressed to identify some of the Spanish songs sung by Martinez.

More problematic is the acoustic itself. With artists performing, in essence, to the back wall of the Pritzker stage—a space meant for sound to go outdoors in the opposite direction—the results were variable at best. From the choral seating, the sound was serviceable but definitely on the dry side, opaque and lacking clarity—not equal to a justified classical venue let alone a good recital hall. The tradeoff was a spectacular cathedral-like view, the towering glassed in “back” wall–i.e., the front of the Pritzker Stage looking out over the Millennium Park seating and to the lights of downtown and the South Loop.

Even with a problematic acoustic, the artistry on display was on such a consistently high level from all three artists—and their terrific pianist and program curator, the Lyric’s indefatigable Craig Terry, that it didn’t prevent the evening from being a rousing success.

The idea is to pair two established artists with a young Ryan Center artist for each program. As it turned, out, Ryan member Bridges, delivered some of the finest moments of the evening. The mezzo-soprano’s rendition of Ravel’s Sheherezade cycle was mesmerizing, alternately impassioned and suffused with sensual languor and smoky tone. She brought a maternal caressing expression to Montsalvatge’s lullaby Canción de cuna para dormir un negrito and sassy panache to Gershwin’s I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise, returning this standard to its jazz-age roots.

Bo Skovhus, currently appearing in a comic role as the Count in Lyric’s Capriccio, revealed a more serious side, showing himself a lieder singer of the first order. The Danish baritone has long been resident in Vienna and from that city he drew most of his selections.

A strong and supple rendition of Schubert’s Willkommen und Abschied made a fine calling card. Apart from a slightly dry tone, Skovhus’s rendering of four songs from Schubert’s valedictory “Schwanengesang” were vividly characterized and first-class in every respect,. He brought a light finesse to Die Taubenpost, offered a haunting and intimate Standchen and an intensely dramatic In der Ferne. All enjoyed idiomatic piano accompaniment on a Gerald Moore level by Terry.

The retooled Pritzker space seems less welcoming to high voices and Martinez’s soprano sounded intermittently glassy with words indistinct. Still, she made the most of her opportunities with a lovely rendering of two Faure songs (Mandoline and Et Sourdine). In Rodrigo’s Cuatro Madrigales Amatorios, she brought out the pointillist tracery of Con qué la lavaré? as deftly as the infectious rhythmic swing of De los álamos vengo, madre.

Martinez was at her best in the final set, making an ardent romantic duo with Skovhus in a duet of Lehar’s Dein ist mein Ganze Herz and proving adorable in her coaxing rendition of Gershwin’s un-P.C. Do It Again, artfully twined by Terry with Skovhus’ hearty Lady Be Good.

An uptempo version of Gershwin’s timeless Our Love Is Here to Stay for all three singers was followed by a heartfelt encore of the trio “Soave sia il vento” from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte.

In music and performance, “Beyond the Aria” succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination. Seating is limited and I would grab a seat quickly for next month’s concert before word gets out.

The next “Beyond the Aria” program features Stephanie Blythe, Quinn Kelsey and Laura Wilde 7:30 p.m. November 10.; 312-334-7777.

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