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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Jubilee Gala, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, Chicago, October 30, 2004 (HS)

Celebrating 50 years as a civic institution in Chicago, the Lyric Opera pulled out, if not all the stops, a good many of them for its star-packed gala. The choice of singers mostly focused on those who had made repeated appearances in Chicago, including Renée Fleming, Samuel Ramey, Ben Heppner, Susan Graham, David Daniels, Elizabeth Futral and Frederica von Stade. The most memorable moments in the four-hour show involved Thomas Hampson, Karita Mattila, Deborah Voigt and Bryn Terfel -- and row of silent honorees who may no longer grace the opera stage but know how to milk the applause of enthusiastic fans who remember them well. They included Carlo Bergonzi, Régine Crespin and Giulietta Simionato.

The stage setting evoked the look of the Civic Opera House lobby, with its creamy marble walls and square columns. The chorus was arrayed on risers upstage center, and a white curtain dropped before them to provide space for the soloists when they were singing alone. Simple changes in lighting provided enough variation to keep things interesting enough visually. After all, this was a night that was all about singing.

If I had to pick a favorite moment, it was Finnish soprano Mattila and American baritone Hampson singing the Act One duet, "Figlia al tal nome il palpito," from Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. Neither singer is often cast in Verdi in this country, but after hearing their exquisitely touching, musically refined performance I sure wish they were. Nobody writes father-daughter duets like Verdi, and both singers created an unforgettable moment dramatically and musically with evenness of tone, purity of production and breathtaking dynamic control. Hampson's final "Figlia..." a downward skip of an octave, sung pianissimo, made the hairs on the back of my head stand up.

Mattila also gave a nuanced account of "In quelle trine morbide" from Puccini's Manon Lescaut. Hampson sang Di Provenza il mar" from La traviata with extraordinary grace and that signature beauty of tone, and joined Fleming and Graham for another highlight of delicate singing, the trio "Soave sia il vento" from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte.

Not all of it was so memorable. Fleming took another stab at Casta diva, which she gave a puzzling performance of in San Francisco Opera's gala in September. This is an aria that demands absolutely perfect tone and seamless singing, but Fleming has not found the magic in this music yet. She opened the first half of the program, resplendent in a rouched block form-fitting gown, launching an hour and a half of Italian music, presumably so Bruno Bartoletti, the company's artistic director emeritus, could conduct it and then step aside for Sir Andrew Davis, the current artistic director, who took it the rest of the way with material from German, French and American composers.

Davis' first assignment, just before intermission, was the "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. He got the requisite sustained sound and urgent undercurrent from the orchestra, but soprano Jane Eaglen ran aground in the end with spotty vocal production. There were moments when it all came together, but some of it sounded unsupported, including, unfortunately, her final note.

Vincenzo La Scola gave a pleasant but uninflected account of "E lucevan le stelle" from Puccini's Tosca, Olga Borodina was fiery but not producing the most beautiful sound in "Acerba volutttà" from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, and Richard Margison powered his way through "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's Turandot, all good but not memorable. Aside from Hampson and Mattila, other highlights from the first half were a heartfelt and virile "Nemico della patria" from Giordano's Andrea Chenier, sung by Italian baritone Carlo Guelfi, who makes his Lyric Opera debut next week in Aida, and Ramey's deliciously louche Act One monologue from Boito's Mefistofile, a late replacement for the death scene from Boris Godunov in the printed program.

Andrea Gruber led off the second half with an appropriately stentorian "Dich teure halle" from Wagner's Tannhäuser, followed by the Lyric Opera Chorus' rousing approach to the "Entrance of the Guests" from the same opera, an appropriate prelude to general director William Mason's introduction of those who could attend from a list of 24 honorees who had performed admirably in the past with the company. Joining Bergonzi, Crespin and Simionato were Bartoletti, Marilyn Horne, Evelyn Lear, Thomas Stewart and the dancer Maria Tallchief. Lusty bravos and bravas and off-the-cuff shouts of love and admiration from the audience seemed to loosen things up in the gowned and bejeweled audience. Whether it was that, or the invigorating effect of Davis' conducting, the more varied material or simply a more consistent lineup of singers, the second half produced significantly more enthusiastic reactions from the capacity house, and deservedly so.

James Morris was in splendid voice for the Dutchman's monologue from Act One of Wagner's Der Fliegende Hollander. He sang the role here in the 2000-2001 season. Heppner followed with a gorgeously lyrical and seamless Prize Song from Wagner's Die Meistersinger. Graham's "Parto, parto" from Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito injected more refinement and lyricism into the proceedings, which peaked when the "Soave sia il vento" trio suspended everything in midair for its duration.

David Daniels was either very brave or very stupid to sing "Fammi combattere" from Händel's Orlando with Marilyn Horne in the audience and shortly after the audience was reminded of her presence. Anyone who ever heard Horne's power and unstinting coloratura in that role could only judge Daniels' version pallid. Much better for him might have been something lyrical, such as "Ombra mai fu."

Voigt erased that episode pretty fast with Chrysothemis' big aria, "Ich kann nicht sitzen" from Strauss' Elektra, with preternaturally gorgeous sound and amazing power. Graham followed with a magnificent "Seien wir wider gut," the aria the Komponist sings to the glory of music in the Prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos. Elizabeth Futral stopped just this side of campy in her over-the-top "Glitter and Be Gay" from Bernstein's Candide. She sang the role here in 1994-95.

The tone stayed light for the remaining numbers, starting with tenor Gregory Turay in a delicate and elegantly Mozartean "The New York Lights," the grazioso tribute to New York in William Bolcom's A View from the Bridge, which debuted at the Lyric Opera in the 1999-2000 season. After Andrea Rost's silvery "Waltz Song" from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, Frederica von Stade showed she still can sing with impeccably seamless sound in the lovely "Connais-tu le pays" from Thomas' Mignon.

That brought us to Terfel's contribution, a terrifically nuanced "Honor monologue" from Verdi's Falstaff. I especially like the breathy tone for the line reference to death, Verdi's little nod to Iago's "Credo." To finish, Terfel led the fugue finale from Falstaff, sung with the chorus and a team of current young performers, some of whom might well star in the 75th anniversary gala.

Harvey Steiman

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