To kick off their 2013-2014 season, The Lyric Opera of Chicago gave a free concert in Chicago's Millennium Park that featured highlights from some of the operas coming up in the Lyric's season, as well as audience favorites from the opera catalog. The Lyric's orchestra was conducted by Ward Stare, who has led Lyric concerts in the past, and featured several singers who will star in Lyric operas this season.
The concert began with an unexpected treat, the overture to Hector Berlioz's Beatrice et Benedict, his adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. It's worth pointing out that, despite many of the famed solos that would be performed, the real star of this show was the Lyric's orchestra. Performing from Millennium Park's modernist band shell, the orchestra gave a a beautiful performance, at times perfectly modulated, at other times highly theatrical. Conductor Ward Stare must also be given his share of the credit for making the Anvil Chorus from Verdi's Il Trovatore as exciting and over-the-top as one would expect for a big outdoor concert, but also for their tender playing underscoring the love duet from Act One of Puccini's Madama Butterfly (which is on the Lyric's slate this season), as well as the brilliant building to the crescendo from the immortal second act duet of the same opera, “Un Bel Di.” The horns were also in particularly good form when they needed to be, during the performance of the Prelude to Act Three of Wagner's Lohengrin.
The soloists, however, were the stars of the evening, and the loving reaction they received from the audience indicated that to anyone who would think otherwise. Place of honor to my ears went to Ana Maria Martinez, the soprano who sang the aria and the duet from Madama Butterfly. Butterfly is one of the toughest roles in the soprano's repertoire, and Martinez was in spectacular voice, giving the vocally difficult and dramatically involved role a big-voiced interpretation. Her cohort, the tenor James Valenti, who sang the role of Pinkerton, was well-liked by the audience as well but I must confess to have found his voice severely lacking. He does not seem to be a true lyric tenor, possessing very little force in his voice except at the lower end. His high notes were unimpressive, and his characterization was also inadequate, possessing little of the vocal or emotional qualities that the lengthy love duet between the two leads requires.
The longest section of the evening presented one of the great operatic showpieces, the “Mad Scene” from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, which the Lyric staged in the 2011-2012 season. This scene, which by itself requires tremendous stamina from the soprano singing the title role (to say nothing of the rest of the role's demands in a full performance), was sung by the Russian soprano, Albina Shagimuratova. Her performance of the role was quite impressive, as she demonstrated exceptional coloratura and an effortless tone from a voice, that, while powerful, seemed a bit undersized for Lucia, even with the amplification of a microphone, a luxury that is not usually afforded the singers in the opera house.
The concert, on the whole, was quite successful from the point of view of being able to attract the public to an opera concert. It would be an incomplete report of this concert not to mention the atmosphere of the concert, which was as much a part of the night's success as anything that came from the stage. The evening had the blessing of perfect weather, a great view of Chicago's skyline, but the most exciting element was that of the huge crowd which filled not only the upper lawn area and the lower seating area near the Millennium Park band shell, but also attracted a standing room crowd that lined the walls of the Jay Prtizker Pavilion, proof that opera does not have to be the elitist entertainment that it is usually considered, but a popular medium. The casually dressed crowd was enthralled by a presentation that was not a watered-down performance of opera, with concessions to pop music or by a need to over-explain the music's greatness to the audience. Yes, the tunes were largely popular ones (within the operatic repertoire), but this concert could serve as a great introduction to opera. Unfortunately, because live opera performances are prohibitively expensive, most of the audience's members will, I fear, be deterred from pursuing the artform in any way, but there are alternatives: great audio and video recordings, TV and radio broadcasts, the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD broadcasts, transmitted live to movie theaters, all of which are fairly inexpensive alternatives to the live stagings. But, if for only one night, opera aficionados and novices alike were able to share the experience of this singular artform in a remarkable setting.
Photo credits: Robert Kusel
Note: An earlier edition of this article indicated that the Lyric staged Lucia di Lammermoor during the 2012-2013 season. Also, in one of the photos, baritone Anthony Clark Evans' name is given as Anthony Clark Lewis. This article has been updated to correct those mistakes.