A memorable night of singing with Fleming and Kaufmann at Lyric Opera of Chicago

March 21, 2014
Reneé Fleming and Jonas Kaufmann with Sir Andrew Davis conducting the Lyric Opera Orchestra Wednesday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Renée Fleming and Jonas Kaufmann with Sir Andrew Davis conducting the Lyric Opera Orchestra Wednesday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Okay, so technically Lyric Opera of Chicago’s concert Wednesday night didn’t mark the end of the company’s season. La Clemenza di Tito runs through Sunday, there is an Itzhak Perlman recital next month and five thousand performances of The Sound of Music in April and May.

But for most Chicago operagoers, Wednesday’s subscriber appreciation concert with Renée Fleming and Jonas Kaufmann wrapped the company’s 59th season in memorable fashion with a gala concert that not only provided a model of its kind, but also served up one of the finest vocal events of the season.

This was the first joint concert appearance by Fleming and Kaufmann. (Kaufmann made his American debut at Lyric in 2001 as Cassio in Otello with Fleming as Desdemona, and sang the Italian Tenor with Fleming’s Marschallin in Rosenkavalier in Baden-Baden in their only previous collaborations.) Yet such was the chemistry and combustible dramatic frisson of the two charismatic stars that it was hard to believe this was their first concert together. It surely won’t be their last.

Both artists were at the top of their game vocally—and the fact that they make a ridiculously handsome couple didn’t hurt either. Fleming looked ravishing in two Vivienne Westwood gowns and Kaufmann’s matinee-idol looks and nice-guy persona elicited a couple Beatles-like outbursts from his less inhibited fans. (60 Minutes was there to record the event for a future Kaufmann profile as well.)

The German tenor’s voice is distinctive—dark and baritonal in color yet with daunting power and seemingly effortless high notes. His rendition of Don Jose’s Flower Song from Carmen was musing and introspective, the top B flat rendered with a feather-light pianissimo (spoilt unfortunately by a loud hacking cough from a woman in the audience who should have stayed home). Kaufmann’s recent triumph in Werther at the Met was represented with “Pourquoi me reveiller,” and one can go a long time without hearing such idiomatic Massenet, the tenor singing an elegant and refined account with powerful top notes.

Best of all was Don Alvaro’s Act 3 Romanza (“O tu che in seno agli angeli”) from La forza del destino. Preceded by a gorgeous atmospheric clarinet solo by Charlene Zimmerman, Kaufmann’s performance was magnificent—-brooding and interior in his recitative, the aria delivered with searing dramatic point and true Verdian weight. Can we please have this gifted artist back in a staged production in Chicago as soon as possible?

Fleming was equally compelling in her solo items, delivering some of her finest singing in Chicago of recent years. Even now nobody does sad like the glamorous soprano and her spell-binding rendering of Refice’s Ombra di nube was heart-breaking, beautifully shaded and deeply felt. Fleming also showed what genuine opera acting is about in a vividly characterized account of Manon’s “Adieu, notre petite table” illuminating every phrase with detailed nuance and emotional commitment.

The soprano’s Danny Boy was the sole clinker of the evening—a nice post-St. Patrick’s Day offering for the Irish in the audience yet rather over-interpreted Wednesday and unaided by a decidedly schmaltzy arrangement.

But it was the duetted items that made this evening memorable, as much for the dramatic sparks created by the two artists as for their gleaming vocalism. In the Act 3 duet from Faust, the acting of Fleming and Kaufmann made sets and costumes irrelevant, segueing from coy and awkward beginnings to increased ardor, with magical mezzo-voce singing from Kaufmann and thrilling top notes from both.

A tender and expressive performance of the love duet from Otello (“Gia nella notte densa) showed the singers’ close rapport. The duet displayed Fleming’s sensitivity and seasoned expertise in the role but also shows Kaufmann as a fine Otello in the making, with his heroic tone and easy top notes.

The St. Sulpice scene from Massenet’s Manon made a well-judged if unlikely finale (who is going to take holy orders when Renée Fleming is begging you to run away with her?). With fizzing dramatic involvement, the scene was riveting—Kaufmann’s Des Grieux veering from awkward halfhearted rejection of Manon to ultimate careless capitulation, and Fleming’s Manon insinuating her dubious former lover with feminine wiles and rejoicing in her victory.

The audience clearly knew they were experiencing a genuinely special night and the tumultuous ovations brought the two singers out for a pair of encores.

Lehar’s Merry Widow Waltz duet was a somewhat predictable choice, taken slowly yet with feeling and exhilarating final top notes by both. More surprising and welcome was “Gluck, das mir verblieb” from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt in the original duet version, hushed and beautifully sung.

Sir Andrew Davis led the Lyric Opera Orchestra in lively orchestral sweetmeats by Saint-Saens, Verdi and Tippet in between the vocal items. Except for one rude wind blat near the end of the evening, the ensemble’s support under their ebullient music director was as refined and sleek as the vocalism of the evening’s two stars. The burnished, resplendent playing of the cello section, led by principal Walter Preucil, was especially notable.

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