Lyric Opera serves up the glitz and glitter in Diamond Anniversary bash

Sun Nov 02, 2014 at 1:21 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Renee Fleming and Ramsey Lewis performed Saturday night at Lyric Opera's  60th anniversary  concert.
Renée Fleming and Ramsey Lewis performed Saturday night at Lyric Opera’s 60th anniversary concert. Photo: Michael Brosilow

In some quarters, it’s considered tacky to flaunt one’s diamonds.

But on Saturday night at the Civic Opera House, Lyric Opera of Chicago unashamedly trotted out an impressive collection of musical jewels to celebrate its 60th anniversary. And who could begrudge Lyric such a sparkly Diamond Anniversary bash?  None of Chicago’s seven previous resident opera companies lasted anywhere near six decades; several folded before their 10th birthday. And Lyric’s 60th season is off to an unusually strong start. The company’s productions of Don Giovanni, Capriccio and Il Trovatore have offered the kind of vocal star power and powerful staging that sends opera lovers home with a song in their hearts.

The anniversary concert’s lineup, which mixed roof-rattling arias with snappy patter from Second City actors and master of ceremonies Jane Lynch, reflected Lyric’s plans for the future as well as a look back.

The evening’s major revelation was a new acoustic shell designed by Chicago architect Jeanne Gang. Echoing the tiers of Art Deco arches that surround the Opera House’s proscenium, the shell lines the ceiling and walls of the massive stage with thin panels of white oak. Visually it’s a beauty—a warm, elegant enclosure enlivened by the sinuous curves and three-dimensional shapes so typical of Gang’s work.

It was difficult to judge the shell’s acoustic properties, however. Saturday’s show was doubtless a sound engineer’s nightmare, constantly switching between amplification for the actors and Lynch and ramping it down for the opera numbers. From the main floor’s right side, the amplified speech sounded muffled, and it was sometimes difficult to understand what Lynch or the actors were saying. Those problems will probably fade as Lyric gets used to working with the shell.

Soprano Christine Goerke, scheduled to sing Brünnhilde in Lyric’s new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, 2016 through 2020, swept onstage for a chilling turn as Verdi’s Lady Macbeth. Resplendent in black lace and long chartreuse cloak, she alternately flung her voice to the heavens and pulled us into the smoky depths of hellish ambition in the Act One recitative, cavatina and cabaletta “Nel di della vittoria.” Stephanie Blythe, currently Lyric’s Azucena, was similarly commanding, using her supple mezzo-soprano seductively in unlikely repertoire with the Habanera from Carmen. Illness prevented Mariusz Kwiecien from appearing, but Ana Maria Martinez, his co-star earlier this season in Don Giovanni, returned with a touching “Un del di” from Madama Butterfly.

Soprano Marina Rebeka sang impassioned Mozart, and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham offered a profoundly touching “D’amour l’ardente flamme” from Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust. Baritone Quinn Kelsey, the powerfully malevolent Count di Luna in Lyric’s Trovatore, was an amiable pitchman in the Prologue to Leonvacallo’s Pagliacci, inviting us to stick around for a good show.

Hints of good show down the road came from soprano Amber Wagner whose joyfully resolute “Dich, teure Halle” previewed her performances later this season in Wagner’s Tannhauser. It was a distinct pleasure to hear tenor Johan Botha in Puccini’s “Nessun, dorma,” a relatively intimate piece compared with the heroic Wagner and Verdi roles he sings most often at Lyric. He returns early next year in Tannhauser. Bass-baritone Eric Owens, who sings Porgy in Lyric’s upcoming Porgy and Bess, brought quiet drama rather than stentorian declamation to “Ol Man River.” Renée Fleming, Lyric’s creative consultant and Capriccio star, appeared in her jazz diva mode, singing a nicely loose, free-floating version of Over the Rainbow with jazz great Ramsey Lewis at the piano.

Lyric’s chorus was touching in Verdi’s “Va pensiero.” Sir Andrew Davis, Lyric’s music director and the evening’s conductor, dedicated that chorus to the memory of Bruno Bartoletti, Lyric’s long-time music director who died last year. As usual under Sir Andrew’s expressive direction, throughout the evening Lyric’s orchestra shifted seamlessly between the high drama of Verdi and Wagner and the more transparent glow of Berlioz and Puccini. Singers from Lyric’s Ryan Center were featured in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ poignant Serenade to Music.

The show was well-paced, and its energy never flagged. Lynch and the Second City actors popped in and out for short bits before ceding the stage to the main attraction—Lyric’s singers, chorus and orchestra. A send-up of The Sound of Music with Fleming as a besieged Mother Superior had its moments.

The best Second City sketch was a new installment in the troupe’s Dr. Opera series that brings assorted operatic characters into a psychologist’s office for some badly needed counseling. Kate and B.F. Pinkerton of Madama Butterfly hashed over the stunning revelations of their recent trip to Japan. Kate had expected a relaxing trip to her husband’s old haunts. She was even cool with meeting Butterfly, his old flame. “I thought we’d have brunch at her house…,” she said in tones of aggrieved innocence. Large screens flanking the stage and mounted near the balconies worked best in the Second City segments. Visuals of individual orchestra members were often awkward, but the screens did help minimize the distance between the stage and the audience in the 3,500-seat Opera House.

Given the toxic problems facing many arts organizations in the U.S., Lyric Opera has a lot to celebrate. Not only surviving but thriving on a 60th anniversary? Time to pull out the family jewels.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Lyric Opera serves up the glitz and glitter in Diamond Anniversary bash”

  1. Posted Nov 03, 2014 at 9:26 am by Anne-Marie

    It was indeed a glittering evening of music! I do agree with you about the muffled sound, since I was sitting on the right side of the main floor’s first section, and had difficulty understanding some of Jane Lynch’s script, as well as the dialogue of the actors doing the skits. At some point I wondered if they had double microphones for Jane – one on her person and the podium microphone. This creates the muffled result I’ve noticed in other venues. The acoustic shell is beautiful and hopefully, we shall benefit from a superior sound for concerts down the road.

    Thanks for your interesting review. Christine Goerke’s Lady Macbeth and Johann Botha’s “Nessun Dorma” were my favorite solos of the evening and Sir Andrew’s exquisite “Va Pensiero,” delivered by the orchestra and chorus brought tears to my eyes.

    Long live Lyric Opera of Chicago for another 60 years!!!

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