“Beyond the Aria” offers fine artistry in problematic acoustic

Wed Dec 02, 2015 at 1:12 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Thomas Hampson performed at the "Beyond the Aria" program Tuesday night at the Harris Theater.
Thomas Hampson performed at the “Beyond the Aria” program Tuesday night at the Harris Theater.

The “Beyond the Aria” series continued its second season Tuesday night at the Harris Theater, once again affording the opportunity to hear Lyric Opera stars perform songs and lieder in an intimate, club-like setting.

Thomas Hampson and Heidi Stober took a night off from Lyric’s production of The Merry Widow, and were joined by Richard Ollarsaba, a third-year Ryan Opera Center member.

While the enclosed stage of the Pritzker Pavilion offers striking visuals of Millennium Park and an up-close-and-personal ambiance, the space remains sonically problematic. Even with the artists’ immaculate diction, words were often unclear in the cloudy acoustic, even for those sitting just a few feet away. The amplification was worse, with artistic director/pianist Craig Terry’s excitable introductions largely indecipherable on the stage floor.

Even with that significant debit, the three singers managed to overcome the presentation issues and served up worthy vocal pleasures in a 75-minute unbroken set that concentrated on American and German song.

Heidi Stober led off with a seasonal item, “Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion” from Handel’s Messiah, rendered with bright tone and agile coloratura. Her spacious expressive tempo in the contrasting middle section artfully segued into Thad Jones’ jazz standard “A Child is Born,” before the reprise of the aria’s opening section.

Paying tribute to her 2-year-old son, Stober offered a trio of maternal lieder from Richard Strauss. She brought a lullaby-like calm to “Meinem Kinde” and was vivacious and characterful as the boastful mother in “Muttertandelei.” The soprano showed her lighter side, feting her hometown with a swinging account of Alec Wilder’s “Milwaukee.”

Hampson opened with an intriguing curio, Liszt’s “Die drei Zigeneur,” his baritone conveying mystery, wonder and vehemence by turns.

The singer’s long advocacy for American song was manifest in his homegrown set. In the current campaign season, Copland’s “The Dodger” proved apt, given with hearty and sardonic swagger. Hampson’s story-telling bonafides were nicely to the fore in Henry T. Burleigh’s “Ethiopia saluting the colors,” and he closed with a haunting, wistful rendition of “Shenanadoah.”

Richard Ollarsaba more than held his own with his starry colleagues. In two Viktor Ullmann settings, the young bass-baritone displayed a dark, deep-pile voice, delivering a jaunty “Vorausbestimmung” and a hearty paean to Bacchus in “Lob des Weines.”

His two contemporary settings proved a highlight of the evening. In Chris De Blasio’s “Walt Whitman in 1989” he offered a poignant rendering of the AIDS-inspired setting. (The composer died of the illness at age 34.)

Ollarsaba’s performance of Steven Mark Kohn’s “The War Prayer” was mesmerizing. The singer showed the poise and communicative power of a seasoned artist, singing with commanding, stentorian tone and delivering all the passion, tenderness and biting irony of Mark Twain’s antiwar text.

As always, the evening closed in a lighter vein. In a tribute to Paris, Hampson showcased his relaxed charisma in Cole Porter’s affectionate “Who said Gay Paree?” and was joined by Stober for a lilting and Terpsichorean rendition of Porter’s waltzing “Wunderbar.” Ollarsaba teamed up with both colleagues for a lightly spun take on Harold Arlen’s “I’ve got the world on a string.”

The singers joined forces for the enjoyable encore—a witty trio version of “La ci darem la mano” with Hampson and Ollarsaba as dueling Don Giovannis, vying for the hand of Stober’s Zerlina and eventually acquiescing in a Mozartian menage a trois.

The next “Beyond the Aria” program takes place 7:30 p.m. January 15, 2016, and features soprano Danielle de Niese, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and bass-baritone Bradley Smoak. harristheaterchicago.org.

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