By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic
Lyric Opera of Chicago brought together two of its most heralded singers for a one-show-only concert of opera classics, popular songs, and spirituals on Sunday. Bass-baritone Eric Owens and tenor Lawrence Brownlee, friends of many years, shared the stage with pianist Craig Terry, the music director of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center, for a worthwhile afternoon of music.
O and Bro (truncating their surnames) proved to be a dynamic duo, consistently eliciting not only tremendous applause but also cheers and shouts of praise from the enthusiastic audience at the Civic Opera House.
Before the intermission the music was entirely opera excerpts, with the exception of the opening number, the concert aria “Cosi dunque tradisci,” which found Owens creating both anguish and torment in a dramatic work by Mozart.
Brownlee followed and hammed it up — in the most endearing way — with “Ah, mes amis … Pour mon ame quel destin” from Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment.” Buoyant and suave, with stunning high notes, Brownlee offered a fully invested and exciting performance.
Owens then returned to the stage with physical gestures and expressions designed to tease his singing partner, drawing laughter from the audience before he dove into an attractive “Infelice” from Verdi’s “Ernani.”
The two joined forces for a duet from Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love,” the scene where Dulcamara sells Nemorino and ordinary bottle of wine convincing him it is a love potion. The singing was splendid and there was lots of fun and silliness in their rendition.
Brownlee then conjured up a greatly affecting “Una furtiva lagrima” from the same opera.
“Le veau d’or” from Gounod’s “Faust” showcased intensity by Owens and “Je crois entendre encore” from “The Pearl Fishers” by Bizet let Brownlee display his remarkably gorgeous sound.
The first half closed with that same opera’s famous duet to friendship: “Au fond du temple saint.” The singers were impassioned and thoroughly convincing.
After the intermission there was a gospel section, opening with “All Night, All Day,” which Brownlee introduced as particularly close to his heart and which he has renamed “Caleb’s Song,” in honor of his autistic son. The refrain, “angels watching over me,” was notably glorious.
Owens was then understated and moving in a quiet interpretation of “Deep River.”
This section closed with an odd arrangement of “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands” (attributed to Margaret Bonds and Craig Terry) which never caught fire.
The next section consisted of American songs from the 1930s to the 1960s, including “Lulu’s Back in Town” (from 1935, popularized by Fats Waller), “Dolores” (recorded in 1941 by both Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby), and “Lollipops and Roses” (a hit for Jack Jones in 1962, and also covered by a wide range of singers, including Perry Como, Doris Day, Kate Smith, and Natalie Cole).
These songs were all in somewhat dull arrangements by Terry, but Brownlee and Owens still found chances to make them interesting, even if they were often hard to hear over the pounding piano.
The concert closed with spirituals. “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired” highlighted Brownlee, who was fascinating throughout.
Owens was booming with power for most of “Peace Be Still” before he dropped to an incredibly quiet conclusion.
Together, the pair offered an invigorating performance of “Every Time I Feel the Spirit.”
The audience’s appreciation was wild, so it was no surprise that an encore was offered in short order. “This Little Light of Mine,” often mistaken for a Negro Spiritual, is a gospel song written by Harry Dixon Loes, (who studied at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute). It has had great currency and has been used in many ways. It was one of Leontyne Price’s favorite pieces, it was a Civil Rights anthem, and it was performed on the first night back on the air of the Late Show with David Letterman, which for several nights after 9/11 was not broadcast.
The pair shined in a sparkling and joyful rendition.
Even as audience members streamed out, the applause remained loud and greatly appreciative.