By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic
Saturday night’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) concert at the pavilion at Ravinia was originally to have featured Illinois native Matthew Polenzani, a tenor admired here in Chicago and around the world. When he became ill, a substitute was engaged who also promptly became ill. But third time’s the charm: Michael Fabiano, who had already been slated for a performance the night before, stepped in and wowed the audience with a magnificent performance.
He was joined by Nadine Sierra, an accomplished soprano who made her professional opera debut at the tender age of 16 and has been in great demand ever since.
Presiding at the podium was James Conlon, music director for the CSO at Ravinia from 2004 to 2015, who brought confident and assured leadership.
The program was a well-conceived mash-up of Rossini and Donizetti. The former was represented by orchestral music from his operas (overtures and one ballet), while scenes from the latter’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” made up the balance of evening’s music.
The Donizetti excerpts were the highlight of the evening, going from strength to strength. First, Sierra and Fabiano took on the Act I duet where Lucia and Edgardo declare their love for each other and they exchange rings to mark their promise to marry.
Sierra conveyed the earnest and devoted passion of a young woman while Fabiano laced his performance with ardent love and a confident assurance. Among the lines the characters each sing alone and then later together is “the breeze will carry my most ardent sighs to you,” as they note that they must first be parted before they can marry. The soothing Ravinia breezes seemed full of ardor as they sang, and by the time they took on the line together it was unmistakable that love was in the air. Conlon ensured that the orchestra provided firm support.
Sierra’s mad scene was a triumph. For this, principal flute Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson was pulled from the orchestra and performed at the front of the stage next to the soprano. The effect was breathtaking.
The American soprano captured all the raw emotion of Lucia’s transformation from a happy young woman in love, to a desperately confused and demented bride who has just killed the man she was forced to marry. Sierra spun out golden lines of music, delicate, ecstatic, and delirious in turns, and sculpted the long opera segment so that each of the peaks and valleys were beautifully rendered.
Höskuldsson, formerly of the Metropolitan Orchestra, has performed this music many times and brought a clear and intelligent understanding. With the flute echoing and enhancing the emotion of the soprano line, the full duet quality of the music was expertly realized. His sound was polished, warm and haunting.
Even before the excerpt was complete, at a moment when the music lulls to silence, the audience was on its feet with tremendous applause and hoots and hollers of approval. After the music was complete, the audience again registered their overwhelming approval.
The last of the “Lucia” excerpts was the final scene of the opera, where Edgardo learns that his love has died and he contemplates a life without her. That is unendurable and so he decides to kill himself. Fabiano equaled Sierra in his ability to dig down into the music and bring forth the desperation of a doomed lover. His moving account was infused with anguish and despair and like Sierra before him, his performance was interrupted with roaring applause. In just three scenes, this pair of singers proved once again the power of Donizetti’s music.
The concert opened with Rossini, the overture to “The Barber of Seville.” Conlon opened with a creamy and gentle sound from the orchestra, leading effectively into the stormy section. The frenzied pace at the end of the overture was bracing but it never smudged the clarity of the individual lines.
The overture to Semiramide gave the CSO’s wind section an opportunity to shine and they provided a quiet and thoughtful approach that led directly to big, full sound from the entire orchestra.
“Passo a sei,” the Act I ballet from “William Tell” highlighted the folk dance quality of the music with the low string pizzicato like a dance in itself. The celebratory quality of the score came through vividly.
The concert closed with the overture to “William Tell.” The opening “Dawn” section featured principal cello John Sharp as soloist, whose work was poignant and effective. The other low strings provided a firm anchor. The following “Storm” had admirable bluster in the trombones. The “Ranz des vaches” (“Call to the Cows”) was a soothing pastorale. The finale, “The March of the Swiss Soldiers,” was galloping good fun, fleet and sleek.