Opera Favorites Under the Stars

Mezzo-soprano Jʼnai Bridges performs at “Stars of Lyric Opera in Millennium Park.” -Todd Rosenberg

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s night of music at Millennium Park has always been a crowd pleaser, and this year’s concert at the Pritzker Pavilion last Friday night was more of what has made this free concert such a fan favorite. Healthy doses of Verdi and Puccini, dotted with Mozart and Saint-Saëns, made for an evening of music to warm an opera fan’s heart.

The concert opened with the Overture to “La forza del destino” by Verdi. Usually Sir Andrew Davis, music director and principal conductor at Lyric Opera, leads the musical forces on stage for this annual concert. This year it was instead Venezuelan conductor Domingo Hindoyan. The music immediately conveyed a sense of intrigue and foreboding. There was very pretty work by the winds, regal sound in the brass, and stirring excitement in the strings.

Hindoyan’s sometimes crabbed style of conducting might have been difficult at times for the orchestra to follow, but by October, when he conducts the run of “La bohème,” things will likely be ironed out.

There many performances of great beauty, notably Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges in the heart-melting “Mon Coeur s’ouvre à ta voix.” This is the music which seduces the hero in “Samson et Dalila” by Saint-Saëns. Bridges seduced the entire audience with a powerful performance characterized by a rich, earthy sound and admirable legato. And in an evening full of lovely gowns, she came out the clear winner in the dress derby, sporting a sleeveless number in a shimmering teal.

She was immediately followed by a lovely rendition of “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi.” Soprano Danielle de Niese had clear and accurate high notes combined with innocence and love.

The second half of the concert was given over to the end of Act I and all of Act II of Puccini’s “La bohème.” We had a chance to hear the men and women who will star in Lyric’s opener, thus making this an extended form of preview (without sets and costumes, of course). Soprano Maria Agresta (Mimi) and tenor Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo) immediately conveyed not only the immediate attraction this couple experiences, but also the youthful exuberance and shyness of young love. They made a fetching couple.

In the role of Musetta, de Niese ruled the stage. She strutted while standing in place. She charmed. She teased. She made Musetta’s big turn in the opera seem natural all the way through this flamboyant, buoyant music. Zachary Nelson as Marcello clearly established that his feelings for her were not a thing of the past.

Ricardo Jose Rivera (Schaunard) Adrian Sampetrean (Colline), Mario Rojas (Parpignol), and Jake Gardner (Alcindoro) all did fine work.

Nelson appeared earlier in the concert with “Alzati! Là tuo figlio…Eri tu” from Verdi’s “A Masked Ball.” He has a pleasingly darkedged voice with bright top notes. Sampetrean had strong sound and clear diction in “Che mai vegg’io!” from Verdi’s “Ernani.”

Current members of the Ryan Center were also represented in the concert. Ann Toomey offered attractive singing in “Placido è il mar” from “Idomeno” by Mozart. Mario Rojas and Whitney Morrison were joined by the Lyric Opera Chorus in the drinking song from Verdi’s “La traviata.” Rojas sang with vigor and Morrison has creamy sound, but she struggled to match her timing to Hindoyan’s.

The Lyric Opera Chorus (prepared by chorus master Michael Black) had a chance to show off their skill in the Anvil Chorus from Verdi’s “Il trovatore.” It was frisky, energetic, and rousing good fun. Their contribution to the “bohème” section was excellent and they were joined in that with members of the Chicago Children’s Choir (Josephine Lee, chorus master), who contributed the Christmas whining and whooping of innocent tykes.

It had rained much of the day of the concert and before and throughout the performance it was cool with dark clouds. This kept the crowd smaller than usual, which was too bad, as the music was sparkling and hot. Alas, there was no radio broadcast of the event, and some of the sound mixing seemed clearly offbalanced.

Nonetheless, it was a splendid concert, one of the highlights of the summer season at the Pritzker Pavilion.

Lyric’s season opens on Oct. 6 with “La bohème.” For more information, visit www.lyricopera. org.