The Stars of Lyric Opera weren’t under the stars last night, prevented by a persistent cloud bank, but they nonetheless provided a stirring evening of music at the annual free concert, held at the magnificent Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park. It was an ideal venue to showcase Lyric Opera’s orchestra, chorus, and soloists, offering a preview of the upcoming season that opens with La Boheme on October 6.
The first half of the concert brought familiar arias and orchestral works, followed by chorus scenes from three other operas on the Lyric season: the familiar Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore,“Placido e il mar” from Mozart’s Idomeneo, and “Libiamo…” from La Traviata.
After intermission, Lyric showcased its La Boheme with extended excerpts from Act One followed by the entire Café Momus scene, featuring the cast that will perform the opera including Michael Fabiano, Maria Agresta, and Danielle de Niese. All the pieces were introduced with wit and drama by Lyric’s General Director, Anthony Freud.
There were many musical thrills in this evening, but I’ll begin with a caveat. Conductor Domingo Hindoyan got off to a somewhat shaky start with his idiosyncratic reading of Verdi’s glorious Overture of La Forza del Destino. He certainly got the major climaxes right, but there were some very odd transition moments where the overture’s momentum simply stopped and had to be regenerated, seriously compromising the snowballing sweep of the music.
And at the end of the first half of the concert, Hindoyan led the slowest “Libiamo” in my memory. It felt more like a dirge than a rowdy drinking song. However, Hindoyan does much better with the Act III Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila, led with verve and excitement and played with startling precision by the superb Lyric Opera Orchestra.
The vocal selections began with fine work from Zachary Nelson in a plaintive “Eri tu” from Verdi’s Un Ballo in Mascheraand Adrian Sampetrean in Silva’s aria from Ernani.
But the evening truly blasted off with the entrance of mezzo J’Nai Bridges, announced as replacing the indisposed Elizabeth DeShong in Dalila’s aria “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix”. Bridges glided on the stage in a magnificent blue gown and proceeded to thrill the audience with a sexy, steamy, moving rendition of the aria from her rich, chocolatey mezzo. She drew one of the largest ovations of the evening.
Bridges was followed by entrance of the Lyric Opera chorus, delivering a wonderfully precise and bright Anvil Chorus and a dreamlike “Placido e il mar” featuring Ann Toomey as Elettra. The first act ended with the aforementioned “Libiamo” featuring Mario Rojas and Whitney Morrison who struggled mightily with the turgid tempo.
Following intermission, Fabiano and Agresta entered for the Act I Boheme arias “Che gelida manina” and “Mi chiamano Mimi.” Fabiano’s ringing tenor poured forth golden tone, and he sang the romantic aria with Italianate style and flair. And if there was a slight crack in the “money note” on “speranza”, it was more than made up for by the passionate singing. Fabiano’s somewhat hammy acting style made his Rodolfo a bit loutish for my taste, but he was an attentive and generous scene partner to his Mimi.
Maria Agresta was simply magnificent in Mimi’s music, singing with emotion, sensitivity, and beautiful, unforced tone, and acting the shy seamstress with beauty and simplicity. The scene finished with the glorious duet “O soave fanciulla” as Fabiano and Agresta ardently expressed their new-found love.
The Chorus and Children’s chorus joined the principals for a delightful Café Momus scene, sung and played with joy and a genuine sense of fun. DeNiese has found in Musetta a role that perfectly matches her personality, and she gave us a fine, sensual rendition of the famous Waltz Song. Conductor Hindoyan, who will conduct the run of Boheme at the Opera House, seems to have a real affinity for this music, where he turns in his best work of the evening.
All of Lyric Opera’s forces did splendid work to make this a genuinely entertaining and moving evening. Let the season begin!