A triumphant premiere of The Brightness of Light at Lyric Opera of Chicago

United StatesUnited States Kevin Puts, The Brightness of Light: Renée Fleming (soprano), Rod Gilfry (baritone), Wendall K. Harrington (production design), Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago / Enrique Mazzola (conductor). Civic Opera House, Chicago, 8.10.2022. (JLZ)

Enrique Mazzola, Renée Fleming, Rod Gilfry in The Brightness of Light © Robert Kusel

This special concert marked the Chicago premiere of The Brightness of Light by Kevin Puts, a two-person stage piece inspired by the relationship between painter Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, whose correspondence is the basis for the libretto. Commissioned in 2015 with soprano Renée Fleming in mind, it is built on the vocality of this consummate artist, a dimension that extends to the baritone role. As Puts writes in his notes, it needed to focus on an iconic American woman, and the choice of O’Keeffe is inspired by the lines he set at the start of the work: ‘My first memory is of the brightness of light, light all around’.

With the artists’ words presented on stage by Renée Fleming and Rod Gilfry, the performance was in exceptional hands from the start. They worked together decades ago to create the roles of Blanche and Stanley in André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1998), and their rapport was clear as they responded here to each other’s lines with finesse. Wendall K. Harrington’s multi-media backdrop includes images of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz and reproductions of their paintings and photographs, in a display that enhanced the presentation.

Fleming used her voice to bring out various dimensions of O’Keeffe’s lines, and her shaping of them added to the effectiveness of the performance. But it was her timing that stood out, as the emphases that emerged in specific words and phrases brought nuance to the character of O’Keeffe. It was indeed an iconic American woman depicted by an icon of the musical world.

Her entrances were perfect, and the twelve-section score flowed smoothly as it took the audience from the first words to the final ones in the concluding ‘Sunset’. The conversational style that Fleming used to great effect in Capriccio was evident in some of the passages, along with evocations of her Thaïs in the soaring lines that Puts used to show the passionate intensity of O’Keeffe’s love for Stieglitz, and of her absorption in the atmosphere she tried to convey in her paintings.

Rod Gilfry gave an equally strong performance, and his supple voice was perfect for this demanding part. His Stieglitz evinced the passion implicit in the photographer’s letters with his reactions to the drawings O’Keeffe shared with him as well as her compelling persona. Stieglitz’s words show the impassioned side of an artist the public associates with black-and-white photos, and the music adds to the image of Stieglitz that Gilfry created on stage. His duets with Fleming were memorable, as the intersecting lines had nuances in dynamics that allowed various words and phrases to shift between the two, as if they were one voice.

Their musical affinities derive from the effort Gilfry and Fleming made in A Streetcar Named Desire, and it was brilliant to include excerpts from it in the second half of the program. Gilfry’s Stanley was as fresh and moving as it was at the premiere. He also worked well with Fleming in a masterful interpretation of several classic Broadway numbers which showed the difference that occurs when experienced artists perform the music. Details emerge that are not always part of revivals where actors are required to sing, particularly in some of the standards performed here, such as ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’ (from Oklahoma!) and ‘Almost like Falling in Love’ (from Brigadoon).

It also helps to have a skilled ensemble like the Lyric Opera Orchestra accompanying the voices. More than that, Enrique Mazzola led the entire effort with great style, especially in delivering a compelling interpretation of Puts’s brilliant score. This made the performance of The Brightness of Light one of the highlights of the current season.

James L. Zychowicz

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