Stars of Lyric Opera bring down the house at Millennium Park

Sat Sep 10, 2016 at 8:13 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Lyric Opera photo
Andrew Davis applauds Tanja Ariane Baumgartner at the Stars of Lyric Opera concert Friday night at Millennium Park. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Lyric Opera of Chicago caught a break Friday night with its Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park concert. The rain held off, the humidity moderated, and the performance became what Lyric always aims for in its annual free concerts in downtown’s Pritzker Pavilion: a festive, user-friendly glimpse of the company’s upcoming season.

The one disappointment was the last-minute cancellation of soprano Ana María Martínez due to illness. She was scheduled to sing the Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, previewing her performance as Tatiana in the opera that closes Lyric’s 2016-17 season. But even without Martínez, there was no lack of high-powered singing in a lineup that included two Lyric favorites, bass-baritone Eric Owens and baritone Quinn Kelsey, and three newcomers: Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn, German bass Tobias Kehrer, and German mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner.

The evening’s sensational revelation was Youn, who will sing Alberich opposite Owens’s Wotan in Lyric’s season opener, Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Opening on October 1, Rheingold is the first installment in Lyric’s new production of Wagner’s complete, four-opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelungen.

Youn will sing his first Alberich at Lyric, but on Friday night he set the audience cheering with a searing aria from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, an opera whose title role has earned him high praise in Europe, notably at the Bayreuth Festival. Backed by Lyric’s powerful orchestra, with its menacing shadows and fierce outbursts sensitively shaped by music director Andrew Davis, Youn completely embodied the bitter torment of Wagner’s seaman doomed to sail the world for eternity. Youn’s baritone is rich and dark-hued, and it turned as hot as a blast furnace as the Dutchman hurled curses to the heavens. But when fury gave way to despair, Youn’s quiet, seamless legato line conveyed the utter heartbreak of a profoundly hopeless, lonely man.

Baumgartner, who will sing Fricka in Lyric’s Rheingold, also has a big, expressive instrument at her disposal. Strolling onstage swathed in a red satin sheath for the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen, she unleashed a supple, sexy vocal line. Her mezzo-soprano dipped and swooped, playfully responding to Lyric’s eager chorus of soldiers. In the more somber atmosphere of Princess Eboli’s aria, “O don fatale” from Verdi’s Don Carlo, Baumgartner raged and repented with a vengeance. Her ringing, open top notes sailed into the night, sometimes managing to vanquish the sirens that are downtown Chicago’s ever-present soundtrack.

Tobias Kehrer, who will sing Fafner in Lyric’s Rheingold, provided another kind of high point Friday night in Osmin’s merrily bloodthirsty aria from Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio. With his agile voice, Kehrer sank easily into Osmin’s comically low bass notes. As he headed offstage, however, he threw himself into a full cartwheel: Osmin in a tuxedo, heels-over-head with delight at the slaughter to come.

Since his days at Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center training program, Kelsey has become one of opera’s finest baritones, his performances full of emotional truth and vocal splendor. His two arias at Pritzker were deeply moving. Yeletsky’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades was full of tender solicitude while Posa’s death scene from Verdi’s Don Carlo resonated with virile courage.

Owens deployed his flexible baritone with sly, lively energy in Mephistopheles’ paean to the Golden Calf from Gounod’s Faust. He sounded slightly stilted, however, in his first aria of the evening, “O patria…O tu, Palermo,” from Verdi’s I vespri siciliani.

The evening’s other able soloists were Wilhelm Schwinghammer and Ryan Opera Center member Jonathan Johnson. In keeping with the evening’s festive vibe, Anthony Freud, Lyric’s general director, invited the audience to sing along to “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco, one of Verdi’s most familiar choruses. With the help of supertitles, many in the large audience did.

There were a few tedious stretches as Freud enthusiastically touted Lyric’s upcoming season and auxiliary programs. But a night at the opera that includes a cartwheeling Osmin, a sexy Carmen, some sing-along Verdi, and a chance to discover an exciting new voice? Now that’s entertainment.

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Das Rheingold runs October 1 to 22.

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