Lyric Opera patrons attending the duo recital by soprano Renee Fleming and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham Thursday night at the Civic Opera House probably did not expect they would be getting a guided tour of belle epoque Paris along with an exquisitely performed program of French songs.
But that's the enticing twofer the audience was given at this year's subscriber appreciation concert, as the longtime friends and colleagues, sensitively accompanied by pianist Bradley Moore, shrunk the 3,500-seat Ardis Krainik Theatre to the semblance of an intimate Parisian salon from the turn of the last century. The stage was dressed in a manner appropriate to artsy soirees of the period, while the divas were backed by projections of paintings from the Art Institute of Chicago chosen to enhance the mood of each musical selection.
This Chicago stop on the singers' six-city joint recital tour marked the first time Fleming and Graham had performed together on this stage since Lyric's 50th anniversary gala concert in 2004. (Their only joint appearance in a Lyric opera production was in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" in 1997-98.) Local fans who were unable to attend the concert will be pleased to know that WFMT FM 98.7 will present a live broadcast of the artists' program from New York's Carnegie Hall, the penultimate stop on the Fleming-Graham tour, at 7 p.m. Sunday.
Given the precarious state of song recitals in general, and French song recitals in particular, it requires artists of their seductive vocal and physical beauty, interpretive intelligence and glamorous charisma to sell such events to the general public. Sure enough, the place looked to be packed with happily submissive humanity.
Modeling enough designer gowns to stock a small fashion show, the artists traded banter between the various groups of songs and duets, framing their selections with commentary that placed the music in the cultural context of the period. Their breezy exchanges gave the audience something to savor besides impeccably stylish singing.
Illustrating their anecdotal remarks were old photos and scratchy recorded interviews of such belle epoque divas as Mary Garden. Garden, the formidable Scottish soprano, ran the Chicago Opera Association for only a year before bankrupting the company in 1922. "Clearly it was a mistake to give any soprano administrative responsibility," Fleming observed wryly, referencing the fact that she took a seat on the Lyric's executive board in 2010 when she was named creative consultant.
Most of the songs Fleming and Graham offered, in tandem or individually, are lightweight love lyrics that are "about" little save for their own charm. Neither singer tried to freight the music with archness or artifice. That both singers command creamy tone, excellent French diction and a gift for searching out expressive nuance also went a long way toward sustaining an intimate ambience.
Seldom-heard if beguiling duets by Saint-Saens and Faure, along with Berlioz's "La Mort d'Ophelie," allowed the artists to trade seamless phrases and to blend voices exquisitely. One will not soon forget the ethereal conclusion of Berlioz's evocation of Ophelia's death, in which the wordless voices faded to poignant nothingness.
The program's only concessions to standard French repertory were the Barcarolle from Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann" and the Flower Duet from Delibes' "Lakme," both ravishingly sung – also Debussy's best-known piano piece, "Clair de Lune," which gave Moore his brief moment in the spotlight.
French song is Graham's natural habitat, and in a group of Reynaldo Hahn songs she showed why she remains unmatched as an interpreter of this repertoire today, making each Gallic gem gleam with rich sound, elegant phrasing and subtle colorings. Fleming brought her special gifts to a pair of Debussy songs and Delibes' castanet-clicking "Les Filles de Cadix."
Still, it was Graham who brought down the house at encore time when she accompanied herself at the piano in a velvety rendition of "La vie en rose" that even the great chanteuse Edith Piaf might have envied. Admitting that her colleague was "a tough act to follow," Fleming tossed a fragrant bouquet to the fans in the form of "Malurous qu'o uno fenno," one of the "Songs of the Auvergne" arranged by Joseph Canteloube.
Duets from Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte" and Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" brought further satisfactions to the soiree – even if the music isn't a bit French.