Terrific soloists highlight a delightful “Creation” with Levine and CSO

Wed Aug 09, 2017 at 11:23 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Nadine Sierra made her CSO debut in Haydn's "The Creation" Tuesday night at Ravinia. Photo: Patrick Gipson / Ravinia
Soprano Nadine Sierra made her CSO debut in Haydn’s “The Creation” Tuesday night at Ravinia. Photo: Patrick Gipson / Ravinia

There is no doubt that the return of James Levine to the Ravinia Festival is bringing a much-needed lift to a summer destination where classical programming often seems an afterthought to pop concerts, aging divas and ‘80s rock bands.

With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in residence, there can still be great evenings in Highland Park when top soloists and conductors are in the house, as with Susanna Mälkki’s concerts last month.  But with no music director at the helm since James Conlon’s departure in 2015, a broader artistic vision is lacking. The news that Levine has accepted the honorary title of Ravinia’s conductor laureate, effective in 2018, hopefully will provide some stabilizing influence.

Though the 74-year-old conductor looks physically frail and limited in his baton movements, there was nothing tentative about the confident, vividly characterized CSO performance of Haydn’s The Creation, which Levine led Tuesday night.

Photo: Patrick Gipson / Ravinia
Photo: Patrick Gipson / Ravinia

Levine brought an unapologetically Romantic approach to this 1798 oratorio–sung in German–with bold textures, explosive tuttis and a huge dynamic range. Yet the surging drama throughout was put entirely at the service of Haydn’s score.

The depiction of Chaos that opens the work was aptly dark and unsettling, contrasted with the operatic brilliance of the ensuing chorus “And there was light.” Levine directed the music with a seamless, organic line, conveying the quaint musical tone-painting in the orchestra as surely as he sensitively accompanied the soloists in their arias. 

Fine as was Levine’s conducting and the playing of the CSO, it was the terrific singing by the three vocal soloists that lifted this Creation far above the ordinary.

While employed as music critic of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, I covered a performance in 2004 of Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel at Palm Beach Opera. In the cast was a 16-year-old local singer making her professional stage debut and I noted her “graceful presence and radiant singing” in the small role of the Sandman.

That teenager was Nadine Sierra, Tuesday’s soprano soloist who is now enjoying a breakout international career. Following rave reviews at the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala, Sierra won the Richard Tucker Award this past spring–as sure an indicator that exists of a successful opera career. (Lyric Opera, once again, is behind the curve with bringing Sierra to Chicago; too bad their interest in young talent rarely seems to extend beyond the Ryan Center roster.)

Resplendent in a violet gown, Sierra displayed the rich, flexible voice and charisma that have enabled her fast ascent. The Fort Lauderdale native sounded cautious early on in the coloratura of “With verdure clad,” but sang with greater ease and gleaming tone as the evening progressed. She also showed an engaging stage personality in her CSO debut, smiling at her colleagues and swaying to Haydn’s music.

Sierra recently earned acclaim with Matthew Polenzani in the Met’s highly praised production of Idomeneo, and it didn’t hurt to have her costar in the lineup Tuesday. Polenzani–also a Richard Tucker winner–showed why he is the finest Mozart tenor of our day, singing Haydn’s arias with vibrant liquid tone and the lyric sensitivity of a lieder singer.

John Relyea anchored the low end with his authoritative bass. He brought patriarchal gravitas to the biblical imprecations of Part One yet lightened his tone and style effectively for his duets as Adam with Sierra’s winsome Eve in Part Three. Hearing singers of this caliber cut loose in the trios with chorus was a thrilling experience.

Under the direction of Duain Wolfe, the CSO Chorus was fully on the level of the evening’s soloists, bringing magnificent splendor to the massed choral moments as well as glowing sensitivity to the intimate sections of spiritual mystery.

Most CSO principals were on hand for a change, and the orchestra played superbly with blazing virtuosity and tonal refinement as required. The woodwinds were especially characterful, making the most of Haydn’s musical onomatopoeia depicting earth’s creatures and natural phenomena.

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