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With the Bard’s world as stage, Lyric’s Ryan singers, Civic Orchestra share a night of opera

Submitted by on Jun 9, 2016 – 12:42 pm


Ryan artists Diana Newman, Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi, Takaoki Ohishi (Devon Cass)Review: Sir Andrew Davis leads young Lyric Opera soloists and Civic ensemble in concert of music inspired by Shakespeare.
By Lawrence B. Johnson

So much talent bound up in such great and joyous commitment. That was the resonant vibe at a Shakespeare-themed concert collaboration between the young professional singers from the Ryan Opera Center training program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the pre-professional training ensemble run by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The Civic Orchestra of Chicago performed in support and in the spotlight. (Todd Rosenberg)

The program offered June 6 at Orchestra Hall, under the baton of Lyric music director Sir Andrew Davis, showcased an impressive group of Ryan Center singers honing their vocal skills and stage poise for the world’s opera houses and a Civic Orchestra put through its paces both in support and in the spotlight.

Singers and orchestra alike could count themselves lucky to have so experienced and expert a hand at the controls as Davis, who indulged the singers’ needs even as he coaxed consistently elegant ensemble playing from his instrumental forces.

If this night – conceived in keeping with the citywide Shakespeare 400 Chicago observance of the Bard’s death in 1616 – was pitched for vocal stars in the making, a few radiated especially promising light.

Soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi and baritone Takaoki Onishi were a vocally well-matched pair as Ophelia and Hamlet in their duet “Monseigneur!…Doute de la lumiere” from Ambroise Thomas’ opera “Hamlet.” Where Shakespeare’s disaffected prince adjures fair Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery” and never produce more deceiving souls, Thomas’ Hamlet takes a more ardent line, and Onishi’s warm, buttery baritone carried that pledge of love with conviction.

Sir Andrew Davis, music director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Todd Rosenberg)

The bright and agile voice Mkhwanazi displayed in reply merely hinted at the real brilliance she would bring to Ophelia’s aria “A vos jeux, mes amis,” a vocal voyage into madness that this assured singer dispatched with equal parts of ease and élan.

Soprano Diana Newman also scored twin successes in two opportunities. The first, from Berlioz’s opera “Béatrice et Bénédict,” a fluid turn as the sighing Hero in the somewhat one-sided duet “Vous soupirez, madame?” with the lustrous mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen as her maid Ursula. Newman then returned for a burnished and affecting duet with tenor Alec Carlson in “This is my father’s choice” from Vaughan Williams’ opera “Sir John in Love.”

For sheer spunk, or perhaps sass, mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger took the (spice) cake for her portrait of Berlioz’s witty, needling Béatrice to tenor Mingjie Lei’s ably parrying Bénédict. Metzger delivered the wry French text with a flair and a true vocal edge.

Ryan Center artist Ann Toomey (Aaron Jesse)English composer William Walton set Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” for the opera stage, and at least in the U.S. this musical version has seen even less attention than the Bard’s infrequently produced play. The Trojan lovers’ magnificent duet “New life, new love” received a fervent airing by soprano Ann Toomey and tenor Jesse Donner.

The heavily populated Scene 2 in the opening act of Verdi’s “Falstaff” brought pretty much the whole gang back on stage, along with contralto Lauren Decker, tenor Jonathan Johnson, baritone Emmett O’Hanlon and bass-baritone Bradley Smoak. Essentially, it’s the opera’s entire cast except for the rascal Falstaff himself – as the merry wives Meg Page and Alice Ford, comparing identical billets-doux from the fat knight, plot his comeuppance while the men mull the situation from their separate perspectives.

In this instance, some good singing punctuated a general sense of, well, over-population around the maestro. Still, the aura of Ryan Center esprit de corps was undeniable.

Throughout the evening, the Civic Orchestra acquitted itself with discipline and finesse. Playing subtle aria accompaniments by the likes of Berlioz is no trivial thing, and Davis drew precise, yet pliant and expressive performances from this all-around capable ensemble. Indeed, given its best chance to shine, in Berlioz’s luxurious and sensual love music from “Roméo et Juliette,” the Civic musicians summoned a veritable glow.

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