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Lyric Opera anniversary concert focuses on the future

By Andrew Patner/For Sun-Times Media

The launch of Lyric Opera of Chicago 60 years ago has long been the stuff of legend.

A calling-card production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” produced by three young unknowns was a smash, and the second presentation soon after held nothing less than the U.S. debut of the soprano of the century, Maria Callas.

Unlike its six failed predecessor companies, Lyric somehow made it and even flourished through its first years and then decades, becoming synonymous with the Opera House, which it would later own and be recognized internationally as a leading company.

Saturday night, with a brilliant new “Don Giovanni” just behind it as a season opener, the Lyric family gathered to celebrate its latest milestone with a 60th anniversary concert followed by a gala dinner dance.

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Family and celebration were definitely the order of the evening.  The historic stars of the past who graced the Civic stage either as singers, speakers or honorees at the 25th anniversary program in 1979 or the 50th in 2004 are almost all gone now.  The focus this time was on younger singers, many of whom have grown up with Lyric, some as members of its excellent Ryan Center training program.

And where co-founder Carol Fox made the 25th a regal affair, complete with England’s Princess Margaret in attendance, and the 50th was a look back at a half-century of accomplishment during the Fox, Ardis Krainik and William Mason eras, the 60th reflected current general director Anthony Freud’s necessary emphasis on youth, interdisciplinary collaborations, outreach and audience building.

Renee Fleming Second City performers Tim Sniffen, Steve Waltien, Kate James and RaShawn Scott in a parody of "The Sound of Music" while MC Jane Lynch looks on. | Michael Brosilow

Renee Fleming joins Second City performers Tim Sniffen, Steve Waltien, Kate James and RaShawn Scott in a parody of “The Sound of Music” while MC Jane Lynch looks on. | Michael Brosilow

So the master of ceremonies was a superbly deadpan Jane Lynch, the Dolton-born and Chicago-trained comic actress and “Glee” co-star. Lyric creative consultant and superdiva Renee Fleming, who just closed a superb Richard Strauss “Capriccio” here, sang in her chanteuse rather than her operatic guise — a bluesy “Over the Rainbow” with Chicago jazz and pop elder Ramsey Lewis.  The Second City, in its third year of working with Lyric in many areas, threaded its satire throughout the swiftly paced three-hour evening. And a major new piece of interior architecture — a new stage-filling concert shell by Chicago-based international starchitect Jeanne Gang — was unveiled for this orchestra-on-stage event. There were live video screens, too, for what Dame Edna memorably christened “the paupers” in the far-removed balconies. And, unfortunately, microphone problems for amplified portions.

The Lyric Orchestra and music director Andrew Davis were stars throughout the evening. The musicians have reached an enviable level of cohesion, musicality and adaptability with Davis and were strong in both orchestra only (Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture, No. 3) and their many partnership turns.

Soprano Marina Rebeka, Don G’s Donna Anna, was a plaintive, compelling Elettra from another Mozart work, “Idomeneo.” Alas, the most excellent Don himself, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, withdrew due to illness. Happily, though, his was the only cancellation. Ryan graduates soprano Amber Wagner and baritone Quinn Kelsey (the latter appropriately menacing in the well-cast “Il trovatore” of Verdi now running at Lyric) made you want to see them in the roles they shared Saturday in excerpt — Elisabeth in Wagner’s “Tannhaeuser,” coming up in 2015, and Tonio in Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci (someday, let’s hope).

Soprano Christine Goerke. | Michael Brosilow

Soprano Christine Goerke. | Michael Brosilow

Lyric’s future American Brunnhilde and Wotan, soprano Christine Goerke and bass-baritone Eric Owens, offered characterful and individual selections, a chilling Lady Macbeth’s Act One scene from Verdi’s “Macbeth” and a focused, even sculpted “Ol’ Man River” from Kern and Hammerstein’s “Show Boat,” respectively.

Soprano Ana Maria Martinez shifted gears from her recent Giovanni’s Donna Elvira to a heartrending Cio-Cio San’s “Un bel di” from Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly, while the Second City, in its “Dr. Opera” marriage counseling guise, took a wacky look at the Pinkertons, post-Butterfly’s suicide. Mezzo Stephanie Blythe, another key member of the “Trovatore” team, hit the “Habanera” from Bizet’s “Carmen” out of the park. Her fellow mezzo Susan Graham chose a signature number, Marguerite’s Act Three romance from the Berlioz “Damnation of Faust.” What could have been schmaltz, the overpresented “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s “Turandot,” was even tasteful and touching from tenor Johan Botha, this season’s Tannhaeuser-to-be.

The Lyric Chorus had its own turn in a fine “Va pensiero” from Verdi’s “Nabucco,” dedicated by Davis to the memory of his predecessor, Bruno Bartoletti and his 51-year association with the company. Ryan singers supplemented by some graduates showed well in the Vaughan Williams “Serenade to Music,” and the evening’s soloists, with a buoyant Kelsey in the title role, closed things up with the concluding fugue, “The whole world is a jest,” from Verdi’s “Falstaff.”

A recording of the concert will air from 5 to 8 p.m. Sunday on WFMT-FM (98.7) and wfmt.com.

Singing in the "Falstaff" finale are (from left) Emily Birsan, Susan Graham, Christine Goerke, Jonathan Johnson, Stephanie Blythe, Quinn Kelsey, Sir Andrew Davis, Anthony Clark Evans, Jesse Donner, Eric Owens and John Irvin. | Michael Brosilow

Taking a bow after the “Falstaff” finale are (from left) Emily Birsan, Susan Graham, Christine Goerke, Jonathan Johnson, Stephanie Blythe, Quinn Kelsey, Sir Andrew Davis, Anthony Clark Evans, Jesse Donner, Eric Owens and John Irvin. | Michael Brosilow