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Fleming, Kaufmann offer Lyric Opera faithful festive tribute to love and the art of singing

Submitted by on Mar 20, 2014 – 6:35 pm

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann and soprano Renée  Fleming w. Andrew Davis Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra March 2014 (© Todd Rosenberg)

Review: Lyric Opera of Chicago annual subscriber appreciation concert crowns 59th season with soprano Renée Fleming, tenor Jonas Kaufmann, Andrew Davis conducting, March 19 at the Civic Opera House.

By Nancy Malitz

Charting a memorable arc from the flustered panic of love’s first rush to the sorrowful tenderness of lovers whom death has parted, soprano Renée Fleming and tenor Jonas Kaufmann gave Chicago’s Lyric Opera loyalists quite the evening of music to treasure on March 19.

Make no mistake about the enthusiasts in the seats, who were mostly longtime aficionados enjoying a “subscriber appreciation” night, meaning they had first dibs on tickets to see a richly beloved soprano and tenordom’s brightest new star.

Soprano Renée Fleming and tenor Jonas Kaufmann at the subscriber appreciation concert, Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 2014 (© Todd Rosenberg)These were fans who knew their opera, and if they cut off the graciously amused maestro Andrew Davis and the Lyric Opera Orchestra with their wild applause — just a few bars too soon after Kaufmann’s ringing rendition of Don Alvaro’s song to his beloved Leonora, whom he believes to be among the angels — well, it was their night, and they were gobsmacked, and what’s a few more bars from “La forza del destino” anyway? (If you want to hear the way the clarinet gently ties off that aria, since Charlene Zimmerman’s admirable effort was covered, you can try an audience-free recording.)

The opera lovers’ season is winding down now, notwithstanding the variety coming up at the Lyric — a “Barber of Seville” for families, a concert by young opera singers in training, a recital by violinist Itzhak Perlman, a mariachi opera fest and the spring-into-summer “Sound of Music” filling the slate. Still, true operaphiles know it’s that time of year: With the last performance of Mozart’s “La clemenza di Tito” on March 23, that’s it in terms of glamour on the bill for another season.

Thus, the well-planned joint recital by diva and divo with orchestra had the festive air of auld lang syne. Fleming looked ravishing in gowns by Vivienne Westwood and glam jewels by Ann Ziff, and Kaufmann got his own share of wolf whistles, but it was their singing that carried the show on a stage set that cleverly borrowed facades from “Clemenza” and wrought-iron filigree from “The Barber of Seville.”

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann, soprano Renée Fleming and conductor Andrew Davis Lyric Opera of Chicago March 2014 (© Todd Rosenberg)Kaufmann and Fleming offered three popular tenor-soprano love duets, all from operas that end in death for the soprano, though happily not where we intervened. The first, from Gounod’s “Faust,” involved Faust’s romancing of Marguerite, whose chaste innocence is on the line. The scene was a model of balance and counter-balance, with the tenor alternately stoking the soprano’s expressions of mounting passion and assuaging her alarm.

The second, from “Otello,” was Verdi’s greatest of all love duets, between the Moor and his wife, alone and intimately reflective on a starlit night, mere hours before Iago would plant the mortal seed of suspicion. Desdemona has been a signature role of Fleming’s for more than two decades, and she was comfortably assured here, but the recital marked a first for Kaufmann, who has been singing Wagner of late, causing many to wonder if he might have Otello in him. Surely in this scene he showed a promising mixture of ardent gentleness and ringing power, and his voice throughout the concert showed dark mahogany colors in the chest range in addition to an almost ethereal top. It’s possible Lyric’s audience will be able to say they heard him do Otello first.

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann (© Todd Rosenberg)The two singers saved their finest collaboration for last, the stormy St. Sulpice encounter from Massenet’s “Manon,” in which the furious and heartbroken Des Grieux, formerly abandoned by Manon, tries to resist her pleas to return, only to relent degree by shattering degree. The two, who had clearly gone to some trouble to stage it, were intricately responsive to each other and both in fine voice throughout. This time it was Kaufmann who melted and Fleming who pressed the cause.

What a pleasure to have the Lyric Opera Orchestra on stage for a change, although one has to admire the torque in Davis’ back. He not only managed to direct the singers behind him, but also to draw in the audience for an event that he clearly wanted to feel like a family party. And cellist Walter Preucil was first among orchestral soloists who got a chance to shine — his playing set the ravishing tone for the “Otello” duet and for the 1935 Italian art song, “Ombra di nube,” a Fleming staple.

If there were times when the purely orchestral music seemed like so much incidental filler, to allow for costume changes, it can be said that two movements from the “Suite in D Major for the Birthday of Prince Charles,” by the late 20th-century English composer Michael Tippett, were a complete delight. And in the first encore duet of the evening, “Lippen schweigen, ‘s flüstern Geigen” (also known as the waltz from Franz Lehár’s operetta “The Merry Widow”), being able to watch Davis schmaltz it up with his orchestra was half the fun.

Soprano Renée Fleming (© Todd Rosenberg)The most welcome solo songs were Fleming’s lovely “Adieu, notre petite table,” from “Manon” — which was as artfully measured and credible as her long, drawn-out rendition of “Danny Boy” was not — and Kaufmann’s Flower Song from Bizet’s “Carmen” and “Pourquoi me réveiller” from Massenet’s “Werther,” which brought down the house.

Among the program’s many appealing touches was the duo’s second encore, “Marietta’s Lied,” a bittersweet song of true love in the face of death whose late-romantic chromaticism sent the crowds floating out the doors on a diaphanous cloud.

The song was from the 1920 opera “Die tote Stadt” by Czech-born American composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who was adored by Mahler, Zemlinsky and Strauss. Fleming could not have sounded more lovely in it, a circumstance that bodes well for her starring role in Strauss’ similarly lush and introspective “Capriccio,” which is scheduled for Oct. 6-28 at the Lyric with Davis  conducting.

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