Chicago’s Millennium Park Packed for Operatic Stars

United StatesUnited States The Stars of Lyric Opera 2012: Susanna Phillips (soprano), René Barbera (tenor), Cecelia Hall (mezzo soprano), Bernard Holcomb (tenor), Will Liverman (baritone), David Govertsen (bass-baritone), Christine Goerke (soprano), Amber Wagner (soprano), J’nai Bridges (soprano), Brandon Jovanovich (tenor), Joseph Lim (baritone), Kiri Deonarine (soprano), Tracy Cantin (soprano), Lyric Opera of Chicago Chorus, Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra, Martin Wright (chorus master), Stephen Lord (conductor), Millennium Park (Chicago), 8.9.2012 (JLZ)

: La Traviata, Act 1 (Phillips, Barbera, Hall, Holcomb, Liverman, and Govertsen)
Wagner: Tannhäuser, Act 2, Entrance of the Guests “Freudig begrüssen”
Verdi: Don Carlos, Act 4, “O don fatal et déteste” (Goerke)
Mascagni: Cavalleria rusticana, Easter Hymn “Regina coeli” (Wagner)
Bizet: Carmen, Act 4 (Bridges, Jovanovich, Lim, Deonarie, Hall, Govertsen, Cantin, Liverman)

This year the temperate weather made it possible for a crowd of thousands of listeners for the Stars of Lyric Opera of Chicago, an annual free event at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millenium Park, across the Loop from the Civic Opera House. This year’s crowd was so large that it spilled onto the lawn that extends from the performance space southward to the Art Institute of Chicago. The excitement was palpable for an evening that introduced some of the season’s performers through excerpts from some of the company’s most popular repertoire.

Departing from tradition, this year’s program offered complete acts from two operas, in addition to numbers from four others, all introduced by Lyric’s new general director Anthony Freud. For the first act of La traviata, Susanna Phillips gave a thoughtful interpretation of Violetta, with the sense of joie de vivre nicely complemented by introspection. The competing personas were immediately apparent, given Phillips’s attention to the fioriture and the evenness of her register, especially in the famous “Sempre libera.” Even more impressive, her reprise of the aria at the end of the act was as detailed and effortless as when it first appeared.

Her duet “Ah si, da un anno” with tenor René Barbera was effective, but sometimes balances suffered. Barbera seemed to push a bit, even though the venue used discreet amplification to reinforce the sound. In the early part he matched Phillips nicely, but he became somewhat more extroverted in the concluding portion. Even so, Phillips could be clearly heard, using her ample low register for the concluding “Non aduo traverete.”

The final act from Carmen introduced Chicago audiences to the new member of the Ryan Opera Center, J’nai Bridges, singing the title role. Her voice is exciting for its rich, focused sound and the way she fuses the character’s dynamism with compelling musicality. Veteran Lyric tenor Brandon Jovanovich gave a good reading of Don Jose’s part, but the attention remained focused on Bridges. At the same time, the Lyric Opera Chorus benefited from this concert performance, since some of the details are not always as easy to hear when the opera is staged.

The other excerpts showcased the Lyric Opera Chorus, including the famous welcome from the second act of Tannhäuser. While the spirit fit the occasion, it was unfortunately difficult to understand the text in the Millennium Park acoustics. On the other hand, the famous “Va pensiero” from Nabucco seemed to work better—more assured and polished with a greater dynamic range, a detail that also distinguished the excerpt from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana. Yet the focus of Cavalleria was the solo part of Santuzza, sung by Amber Wagner. Lyric audiences know Ms. Wagner from her performances as Elsa two years ago, and Ariadne last season. For this concert, her Santuzza was ardent and appropriately lyrical.

But the evening belonged to Christine Goerke, who delivered a powerful reading of Princess Eboli’s aria “O don fatal” from the French version of Don Carlos. Goerke’s sense of line was palpable, her musical phrasing exquisitely matching the text, and her clarity gave rare nuance to the aria’s subtleties. As Eboli’s mood .