'Stars of Lyric Opera' a feast of song at Millennium Park - Chicago Tribune

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One sure sign the fall music season is upon us: The rush of melody that engulfed Millennium Park on Friday evening.

Verdi and Puccini, Mozart and Saint-Saens all crafted indelible tunes, and their enduring allure ennobled “Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park,” an annual rite that draws thousands to the Pritzker Pavilion stage.

This time was no exception, the audience falling to a hush as one swooning aria gave way to the next.

After conductor Domingo Hindoyan led the Lyric Opera Orchestra in a brisk account of the overture to Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” (“The Force of Destiny”), two women’s voices — above all — galvanized the concert.

Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, who last month brought such fervent expression to the “Lamentations” movement of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”) at Ravinia, proved still more striking on this occasion. True, “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” allows a singer considerable dramatic license to dial up romantic heat as the sensuous seductress of Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila.”

But even if Bridges hadn’t been wearing an iridescent sleeveless gown, even if she didn’t exude radiant beauty before singing a note, even if your eyes had been shut from first phrase note to last, there was no resisting the vocal sensuality of this performance. The fullness and tonal depth of Bridges’ upper notes, the husky quality of her low ones and the sheer lusciousness of her legato lines gave the evening its first thrilling high point.

No wonder Samson succumbed.

Soloist Danielle de Niese performs during the "Stars of Lyric Opera" concert at Millennium Park on Sept. 7, 2018. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

Bridges was followed immediately by the other vocal powerhouse of the night, soprano Danielle de Niese, whose brightness of timbre and pinpoint articulation of pitch represented very nearly the antithesis of what had come just before. Which, of course, rendered her performance all the more vivid. Unfurling “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” de Niese produced an immensely appealing tonal radiance up high and reediness of color in her midregister. Doubly blessed with a singular instrument and a charismatic stage manner, she compelled listeners to focus all attention on her, regardless of how many other vocalists and instrumentalists crowded the stage.

Granted, the evening wasn’t entirely about the sopranos. Baritone Zachary Nelson offered the first of two revenge arias, bringing ample ardor and conviction to “Alzati! La tuo figlio … Eri tu” from Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (“A Masked Ball”). When Nelson sang “I must have your blood,” we believed him. Bass Adrian Sampetrean was an insinuating presence in “Che mai vegg’io!” from Verdi’s “Ernani,” though at times he struggled to be heard over the formidable orchestra.

 

Soloist Mario Rojas stands by as conductor Domingo Hindoyan kisses the hand of soloist Whitney Morrison during the Stars of Lyric Opera concert at Millennium Park on Sept. 7, 2018. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

Lyric Opera’s Ryan Opera Center was well-represented. Sopranos Ann Toomey and Whitney Morrison, both heard last month on this stage in Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Old Maid and the Thief,” lived up to expectations they had established. Toomey offered lovely lines in “Placido e il mar” from Mozart’s “Idomeneo,” and Morrison conveyed a smile in her voice and a twinkle in her eye in “Libiamo, libiamo ne’ lieti calici” from Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Morrison’s duet partner, tenor Mario Rojas, offered more characterization than tonal heft.

All of which set the stage for a concert reading of the end of the first act and all the second of Puccini’s “La Boheme” (which, like much of the rest of the evening’s repertoire, will be featured in Lyric’s upcoming season). Once again, soprano de Niese devoured the spotlight, this time as Musetta trifling with the passions of Marcello, hilariously and tempestuously sung by baritone Nelson. Tenor Michael Fabiano emerged an endearing, disarming Rodolfo, the role in which he’ll make his Lyric Opera debut this season. And soprano Maria Agresta was vocally commanding and dramatically fetching as Mimi, a part that will bring her back to Lyric after her debut with the company last year in Puccini’s “Turandot.”

The Lyric Opera Chorus, under Michael Black, and Chicago Children’s Choir, an indispensable institution led by Josephine Lee, brought sonic depth and brightness, respectively, to a work we’ll encounter at the Civic Opera House starting Oct. 6.

Yes, the season begins.

 

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