Beyond the Aria Review-Blythe's Charismatic Performance Carries the Day

Beyond the Aria at Harris Theater

From its opening number, “Please Be Kind,” a standard by Sammy Cahn, it was clear that Monday’s installment of “Beyond the Aria”, the new series featuring Lyric Opera of Chicago performers, was going to be dominated by the forceful voice and personality of that song’s performer, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, currently performing Azucena in the Lyric’s Il Trovatore. Blythe walked onto the modified stage at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park and confidently belted out the tune in her husky voice and walked off stage to rapturous applause.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the series, designed to showcase opera singers from the Lyric in non-operatic pieces, is its setting. Though the performances take place on the stage of the Pritzker Pavilion, audiences are not sitting in the pavilion itself, but rather, the band shell has been inverted, with a glass partition wall covering what would normally be the front of the stage, so that the stage itself becomes the seating area, with tables for seating on the lower level and additional seats in the area occupied by the chorus that turns the stage into a makeshift piano bar with a view looking out onto Millennium Park and South Michigan Avenue. This setting is both ingenious and confusing, with the entrance for patrons requiring a weaving through areas of the Harris Theatergenerally not used by patrons and reserved for performers and crew.

Quinn Kelsey (standing) accompanied by Craig Terry

The concert took a turn towards classical fare when Blythe made her initial departure. Baritone Quinn Kelsey, currently De Luna in Trovatore, sang “Fear No More the Heat of the Sun” by 20th century British composer Gerard Finzi, and resumed after an interval with two song cycles, one by Finzi and one by his teacher, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Kelsey is an impressive artist, possessing the typical stentorian voice of a Verdi baritone, but also capable of sensitivity, showing both in the five songs of the combined cycles.

Mezzo-soprano and Ryan Opera Center alum Laura Wilde is also possessed of fine voice, though her style is strictly classical and she does not possess the ability to present the Great American Songbook in any way other than classical, which is not the appropriate treatment—this was evident when she tried to sing one of the standards later in the program in an uncomfortably stiff way. Wilde was much more at home with four Brahms lieder that she and pianist Craig Terry performed together; she revealed great skill as a dramatic vocalist.

(l to r) Craig Terry, Laura Wilde, Joan Harris, Quinn Kesley, and Stephanie Blythe

Though Wilde and Kelsey are both possessed of fine voices which shined in the acoustics of the converted band shell (it must be noted I was very close to the performers, I don’t know how people in higher seating experienced it,) the night certainly belonged to Blythe. Though she is one of the most in-demand mezzo sopranos all around the world for opera, particularly Verdi, Blythe has also achieved fame with a touring show (which she conceived with Craig Terry, the accompanist) inspired by the singer Kate Smith. Blythe used this experience to create the entire second half of the program, part of which was drawn from her show about Smith and part of which was a sing-along of obscure standards by well-known composers. Blythe’s charisma is evident and a rare gift, even among performers; though many of her spoken introductions to the songs and her attempts at comedy were, in my opinion, cheesy, the audience was enraptured by Blythe’s personality even more than her remarkable voice. The sing-along, which included songs by Irving Berlin and three Harrys (Carrol, von Tilzer, and Woods), had an overwhelming number of participants who were apparently willing, felt corny and forced but, again, was popular.

Blythe’s performance overshadowed her fine colleagues’ presence so much that it’s a wonder why she wasn’t given the entire show to herself. In a format that lends itself, much more than the formal opera setting, to allow for personal interaction with the audience, Blythe’s undeniable charisma is what carried the day and because of that, it’s unlikely that any of the other programs in this series will be as well-liked.

photo credit: Marcin Cymmer

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