Chicago Sun-Times, Sep 10, 2001
by Wynne Delacoma
Lyric Opera at Grant Park
The word "extravaganza" has an old-fashioned ring to it, evoking images that are equal parts three-ring circus and five-star luxury hotel.

The images were apt for Lyric Opera of Chicago's endearingly old- fashioned free concert in Grant Park Saturday night. The parade of stars was lavish, from Ben Heppner, exultantly triumphant in the Prize Song from Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" to Renee Fleming, suavely coquettish in the "Gavotte" from Massenet's "Manon." With Andrew Davis, Lyric's exuberant music director, leading the full Lyric orchestra, the program ranged from such familiar tunes as Papageno's jaunty Act II aria from Mozart's "The Magic Flute" to the less well known but extravagantly romantic final duet from Giordano's "Andrea Chenier." A new star was even discovered, young German tenor Jonas Kaufmann who gave a searing performance of Federico's lament from "L'arlesiana," an aria tenors adore from the rarely produced opera by Francesco Cilea.

The thunderstorms that had been forecast all weekend stayed away, and the soft weather and clear skies helped lure an audience estimated at 30,000 to the Petrillo Music Shell's lawns. They were eager to be pleased, applauding everything from the stagehands and a mention of the beautiful "rain-free" evening in opening remarks by William Mason, Lyric's general director, to announcements of last- minute changes, especially the addition of Fleming's "Manon" aria. There was much that deserved applause, including the general idea of Lyric's bringing some of its biggest stars to Grant Park for a free outdoor concert.

Producing opera on Lyric's grand scale is hugely expensive, and the resulting ticket prices are high, in the $30 range in the Civic Opera House's nose-bleed zone and well past $100 for a prime main floor spot. This is the second year that Lyric has transplanted itself, minus sets and scenery, to Grant Park, and the audience relished the rare opportunity to hear some of opera's best voices for the price of a bus ride or a few hours' parking in a downtown garage.

The musical menu was meaty. Heppner, Fleming and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham didn't merely trot on for a single, easy star turn. In addition to the Prize Song, Hepper sang the "Chenier" duet with soprano Kallen Esperian and the similarly heroic solo aria "O Paradis" from Meyerbeer's "L'africaine."

Along with solo arias by Mozart and Richard Strauss, Graham teamed with Fleming for a duet from Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" and the final trio from Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier." Fleming's performance also included the haunting "Song to the Moon" from Dvorak's "Rusalka."

Fleming, who will sing Desdemona to Heppner's Otello in Lyric's opening production of Verdi's "Otello" on Sept. 22, was the trouper of the evening. A staticky sound system sabotaged the opening moments of "Song to the Moon," but the soprano persevered, opting for an overtly emotional performance rather than stressing its rapt, quiet quality, which could have gotten lost in the vast outdoor space. She also left a garment bag with two concert gowns designed by Gianfranco Ferre in the airport on her way to Chicago and went onstage Saturday in a costume borrowed from Lyric's wardrobe department and another Ferre gown she had flown in at the last minute. Her concentration suffered little, however. She and Graham were a stalwart, at times playful pair in the "Cosi" duet, ecstatically extolling their respective lovers' virtues. As the bereft Marschallin in the "Rosenkavalier" excerpt, her golden, burnished lyric line was a pensive contrast to Strauss' happy young couple. Graham's Octavian was full of stirring passion and Stacey Tappan, a young soprano from Lyric's Center for American Artists, brought a bright, agile, powerful voice to the role of Sophie.

Kaufmann makes his American debut as Cassio in Lyric's "Otello," and judging from Saturday's performance, he will be a worthy colleague for Heppner, Fleming and Esperian who takes over the role of Desdemona in later performances. Slim and handsome with a heroic, expressive voice, he should add sparks to Verdi's version of Shakespeare's dark tale.

Rounding out Saturday's concert were soprano Catherine Malfitano who brought much passion but a worn voice to songs by Kurt Weill. Tenor Gregory Turay sounded stiff in his opening Mozart aria but hit his stride with an ardent aria from Massenet's "Werther." Italian baritone Lucio Gallo was full of patriotic zeal in an aria from "Andrea Chenier" and American baritone Timothy Nolen turned Papageno's aria from "The Magic Flute" into a relaxed, song-and- dance delight.

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