“Bel Canto” singers relish showing a lighter side at the Harris Theater

Sat Jan 16, 2016 at 6:08 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Danielle de Niese performed at the "Beyond the Aria concert Friday night at the Harris Theater.
Danielle de Niese performed at the “Beyond the Aria” concert Friday night at the Harris Theater.

Is there another concert series in the world that offers three opera singers in a program that zips breezily in 75 minutes from Handel opera and a Scarlatti cantata to The Boys from Syracuse and “Lydia, The Tattooed Lady”?

The Harris Theater’s “Beyond the Aria” concerts have found their audience, and pianist and artistic director Craig Terry announced at Friday night’s concert on the enclosed Pritzker Pavilion stage that the series will be back for a third season in the fall.

As previously, the program teams two established artists currently appearing in Lyric Opera productions with one member of the company’s Ryan Opera Center. Friday’s concert featured three singers from the company’s production of Bel Canto, which closes Sunday: soprano Danielle de Niese, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, and bass-baritone Bradley Smoak, all of whom clearly relished the chance to relax from the opera’s intense drama and show a lighter solo artistry.

Presentation issues that plagued the last concert in the series were largely ameliorated. The amplification that rendered the spoken introductions indecipherable last month proved louder and much clearer, though Friday a working microphone was a sometime thing.

Not much can be done about the cloudy acoustic of the Pritzker Pavilion stage, which was not built to house reverse-direction vocal recitals. Words were fitfully murky, especially with the closing trio of “Sing For Your Supper” from Richard Rodgers’ The Boys from Syracuse.

The intimate venue allowed more opportunity for Danielle de Niese’s charismatic personality to shine forth than her starring role as Roxane Coss, the heroine of Bel Canto. After her charmingly fanciful introduction, de Niese brought out the romantic longing and exotic languor of Bizet’s song “Adieu de l’hotesse arabe,” nicely contrasted with the soprano’s spirited uptempo renditions of Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out of You” and Johnny Mercer’s “You’re Just Too Marvelous for Words.”

De Niese dispensed with her scheduled Giulio Cesare aria, but joined Costanzo for a lovely rendering of the duet “Io t’abbraccio” from Handel’s Rodelinda, the two singers proving simpatico in an expressive and sensitively rendered performance.

Costanzo—the vocally gifted terrorist Cesar in Bel Canto—got the evening off on several high notes with “Vivi, tiranno!” from Rodelinda, showing worthy Baroque style with impressive agility in the coloratura challenges. The countertenor also was heard in a sassy, full-voiced Summertime, and showed expressive poise and flexibility in Scarlatti’s cantata “O pace del mio cor,” though the expansive three-part work felt a bit lengthy and serious for this occasion.

Bradley Smoak more than held his own with his colleagues, the second-year Ryan Center Artist doing a virtual 180 from his role as the violent terrorist Benjamin in Bel Canto.

The young bass-baritone has a dark and elegant voice, and assayed Piccinni’s nocturnal song “O nuit, desse du mystere” in a spacious and supple rendering. Smoak also showed relaxed charm and great humor, bringing vivid characterization to the varied Five American Folksongs by Steven Mark Kohn. The gusto, clear diction and witty delivery Smoak brought to Harold Arlen’s “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” was worthy of the ditty’s great champion, Groucho Marx.

Craig Terry’s piano accompaniments throughout were as vital and responsive to the music as his colleagues’ vocalism.

Lyric Opera’s final performance of Bel Canto takes place 2 p.m. Sunday. lyricopera.org; 312-827-5600.

The final “Beyond the Aria” program of the season takes place 7:30 p.m. March 14 with soprano Susanna Phillips, bass-baritone Christian Van Horn and tenor Mingjie Lei. harristheaterchicago.org.

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