I confess: A while back, when I first heard the title of Lyric Opera’s plans for an outdoor concert on the Pritzker Pavilion stage in Millennium Park this summer, I thought it would be a production of Stephen Sondheim’s glorious musical, “Sunday in the Park With George,” performed by opera singers rather than Broadway artists. But I soon realized it would be something quite different, and that the program coming up was simply making use of a beguiling title.
As it turned out, something altogether wonderful happened this past Sunday evening as the cleverly titled program served as an ideal introduction to the six operas to be performed during Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2023-24 season. In addition, the free performance (that attracted an audience of about 6,500 people!) turned out to be a stunning showcase for the stellar artists of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center whose goal is “to identify emerging operatic talent from around the world and give them unique performance opportunities.”
In fact, every one of the 12 singer/actors involved in the program — as well as the Lyric’s superb orchestra (led alternately by Lyric’s music director, Enrique Mazzola, and conductor Donald Lee III), plus pianist Michael Banwarth — could easily take hold of the Lyric Opera stage. The absence of scenery and costumes in this performance (aside from the elegant gowns worn by women and formalwear by men) not only put the focus entirely on the singers, but also made the characters come fully to life. That was aided by the projection of exceptionally large supertitles.
In a sense, less was more. And although I highly admire the work of scenic, costume and lighting designers, in this case there was something about simply homing in on the performers, and the characters they were portraying, that suggested how a pared down form of performance could work brilliantly on the Lyric stage, too. Not only would that save immense amounts of money, but it might even help lower the price of tickets and build an audience that can’t easily afford the usual ticket price. Worth an experiment.
Now to the performances.
The evening began, as will Lyric’s 2023-24 season, with excerpts from Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” including its elaborate overture. At the center of the tale is a father (the strong-voiced bass Wm. Clay Thompson as the sea captain Daland), and his daughter, Senta (the mightily impressive soprano, Kathryn Henry), who might be the rare woman who can help release the Dutchman, another seaman, who has been cursed to roam the sea forever unless he can find a true love.
Next came an excerpt from Rossini’s take on “Cinderella,” with the excellent mezzo-soprano Sophia Maekawa as Angelina (the Cinderella character) and the rich-voiced tenor Trayvon D. Walker as Ramiro, a prince who pursues her in the guise of a valet.
In an excerpt from Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment,” the power-voiced soprano Lindsey Reynolds played Marie, who works as a canteen girl and engages in a duet with Sergeant Sulpice (played by the rich baritone Laureano Quant).
Then came an excerpt from “Champion (An Opera in Jazz),” by composer Terence Blanchard. It deals with the tortured life of the welterweight boxer Emile Griffith, with the riveting bass-baritone Christopher Humbert Jr. playing the young Emile and singing the stirring “What Makes a Man a Man?”
The evening closed with an excerpt from “Jenufa,” the rarely performed tragic opera by the Czech composer Leos Janacek. The aria involved the title character (sung by soprano Kathryn Henry), whose love for one brother enrages another (tenor Ryan Capozzo as Laca).
Along the way in the program Ryan Capozzo sang “Be My Love” (a wonderful rendering of a hit song by Sammy Cahn and Nicholas Brodszkyv notably performed by the famous tenor Mario Lanza). Tenor Alejandro Luevanos sang the seductive “Granada” by the Mexican composer Agustin Lara. And conductor Donald Lee III led the orchestra in ballet music from the second act of Verdi’s “Aida.”
All in all, quite a night.
For tickets and a complete outline of Lyric’s 2023-24 season, visit lyricopera.org or call 312-827-5600.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic