Divas Goerke, Wagner knock Lyric concert out of the park

Under general director Anthony Freud, Lyric Opera is going all out this season to persuade the uninitiated that opera can entertain as well as edify. Several out-of-the-box events have been announced beyond the mainstage season, including the company's first collaboration with The Second City comedy troupe, in January.

But none of these one-off events will spread the gospel to a bigger, broader public than the free "Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park 2012," the organization's latest sampling menu of operatic morsels, which was presented Saturday night at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

Clear skies and balmy temperatures helped pack the pavilion and Great Lawn with a crowd well in excess of last year's estimated 15,000, a Lyric spokeswoman said. And the live radio broadcast on WFMT 98.7 FM extended the listenership locally and nationally.

This year's edition brought a couple of tweaks to the familiar format. For the first time, Saturday's concert included complete acts from operas — the first act of Verdi's "La Traviata" and Act 4 from Bizet's "Carmen." These allowed developing young artists from the Ryan Opera Center to share the stage with alumni who are now singing major roles here and elsewhere, including sopranos Amber Wagner and Susanna Phillips, and tenor Rene Barbera.

It also marked the first time in five years that the Lyric Opera Chorus took part in one of these pre-season freebies. Their choral selections — including the "Entrance of the Guests," from Wagner's "Tannhauser"; and "Va pensiero," from Verdi's "Nabucco" — were the first to have been prepared by Martin Wright, the company's new, American-born chorus master. The Wagner chorus came off better than the Verdi, which sounded rather anemic and lacking in patriotic fervor.

The members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, vigorously conducted by Stephen Lord, looked and sounded happy to be back in harness. This was their first public performance since Lyric and the Chicago Federation of Musicians, Local 10-208, last week reached a tentative contract agreement for the 2012-13 through 2014-15 seasons. Final ratification by all parties is expected to occur later in the month.

Nothing heard in the course of the generous, 2 ½-hour program thrilled the crowd quite like Christine Goerke's volcanic rendition of Princess Eboli's aria, "O don fatal et deteste," from Verdi's "Don Carlos." Goerke, who is to make her official company debut next month in the title role of Strauss' "Elektra," gave audience members much to anticipate. Singing the original French version of the opera, she flung big, rich, dark, effortless tones to the cool night skies. This is a true dramatic soprano voice that combines power and lyricism in judicious measure. And what temperament behind it!

Although one would have liked to hear more from her, Amber Wagner sang splendidly, her large, voluptuous voice easily riding the choral crests in the "Easter Hymn" from Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana." If Lyric is looking for a Santuzza when it revives this verismo warhorse, it need look no further.

All things considered, the opening act of "Traviata" came off more successfully than the closing act of "Carmen." The former doesn't require much more than beautiful Verdi voices to register its effect, whereas the latter makes no sense when wrenched out of its dramatic and theatrical context.

Phillips and Barbera played well off each other as Violetta, the Parisian party girl, and Alfredo, the provincial lad who adores her. Phillips used her creamy soprano to telling expressive effect in her big aria, in which Violetta appeared deeply touched by Alfredo's declarations of love, even as she protested her determination to continue pursuing a life of pleasure. Barbera led an elegant "Libiamo" chorus, although he doesn't yet command the vocal heft and colors for middle Verdi.

The "Carmen" sequence was notable chiefly for allowing the promising young American mezzo-soprano J'nai Bridges to strut her alluringly dusky voice and fiery temperament as the Gypsy femme fatale, opposite tenor Brandon Jovanovich's ardent Don Jose. This was a good start on a touchstone role she may well make her own one day. But the way her death scene was handled just looked silly.

Cecelia Hall and Kiri Deonarine sang brightly as Carmen's cohorts Mercedes and Frasquita, while David Govertsen gave a strong accounting of comprimario parts in both the Bizet and the Verdi works. Other Ryan Center members contributing to the evening's success were Joseph Lim, Bernard Holcomb, Will Liverman and Tracy Cantin.

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

CHICAGO

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