It’s a human desire as old as the command performances of chiefs and kings, and as current as a Spotify playlist.
Even among connoisseurs of an art form and lovers of long, formless rock concerts, there’s a desire to hear some stars sing or play some favorite songs and excerpts, whether hits or not, whose purpose is to entertain in a more concentrated way and — why not — to let the performers show off a bit.
That’s basically the premise of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s annual Subscriber Appreciation Concert. And so it was Wednesday night at the Civic Opera House when soprano Renee Fleming — she of this season’s Super Bowl and next season’s “Capriccio” at Lyric Opera — and Jonas Kaufmann — he of earnest old-fashioned tenor style and pin-up-photo styling — offered this year’s installment.
It was a thoughtful potpourri, if leaning to the romantic side — almost all of the material came from tragic operas, yet no one was strangled, shot, or stabbed, and only two scenes ended on a down note. But love was what the audience had for the two stars, love is what they wanted from them, and the music of love was what they got.
The 55-year-old Fleming remains a marvel. She is a testament to technique and talent in preserving her voice, selecting her roles and projects, reeling in the listener, all while preparing for her eventual move to the role of opera impresaria (she has been the very active creative consultant at Lyric since 2010). At 44, the Bavarian Kaufmann has been a rare hope of the next generation with an unusually individual voice, slightly dark and sometimes covered, yet so often pulling you in, in both French and German repertoire — a real accomplishment.
And both singers know how to dress (two Vivienne Westwood gowns for Fleming and loads of diamond jewelry designed by New York opera patron Ann Ziff, who also was co-underwriter of the evening; sharp tuxedos with both black and white jackets for Kaufmann) and how to flirt with the audience — Kaufmann pointedly and joyfully acknowledged some audience screams — from both women and men.
And they blend vocally and work well theatrically together (though neither seems to be a dancer, at least not of the waltz). The three duets on the program — from Gounod’s “Faust” Act Three, Verdi’s “Otello” Act One and Massenet’s “Manon” Act Three — were all wholly believable and filled with just the right amount of cream. The two duet encores — the two-party versions of Lehar’s “Merry Widow” Waltz and Korngold’s “Marietta’s Lied” from “Die tote Stadt” — were elegant and dreamy.
Along the way came Fleming with Refice’s late (1935) Italian art song “Ombra di nube,” Manon’s farewell to the “little table” she shared with Des Grieux, and a rather souped-up “Danny Boy,” the one egg laid in the otherwise splendid two-hour-and-20 minute, sold-out evening. Kaufmann gave us Don Alvaro’s reflections from Verdi’s “La forza del destino” (perhaps still a work in progress for the thoughtful tenor), Don Jose’s Flower Song from “Carmen” and “Pourquoi me reveiller” from Massenet’s “Werther,” which has been slaying them this month at to the Metropolitan Opera in New York and around the world over the Met’s HD theatrecasts.
One of the great pleasures of these concerts is, every other year or so, hearing the increasingly splendid Lyric Orchestra out of the pit and onstage with its music director Andrew Davis. To hear scenes and arias with orchestra and sympathetic conductor is always a treat, and this orchestra makes them more so, and did so as well in Davis’ unusual instrumental-only selections from Saint-Saens (“Marche militaire francaise”) and Michael Tippett (the last two movements from his 1948 “Suite in D for the Birthday of Prince Charles”). Shout-outs to principal clarinet Charlene Zimmerman, concertmaster Robert Hanford and acting principal cello Walter Preucil for setting the high standards.