No disrespect to soprano Renee Fleming, but the leading attraction of Lyric Opera's Subscriber Appreciation Concert in which she appeared Wednesday night was her co-star, German superstar singer Jonas Kaufmann, the hottest and most sought-after tenor in today's opera world.
Kaufmann has been conspicuously absent from the Lyric roster since his well-remembered appearances here in Massenet's "Manon" in 2008. The time was long overdue for this charismatic, superbly intelligent singer to return to the house that had given him his U.S. operatic debut -- as Cassio in Verdi's "Otello" -- in 2001.
Those Verdi performances marked the only previous occasion Kaufmann and Fleming have appeared in the same production at Lyric. (Their only other performances together anywhere were in a Strauss "Rosenkavalier" in Baden-Baden, Germany, in 2009.) So this gala concert, which included familiar arias and duets, could be regarded as Lyric's (and creative consultant Fleming's) way of coaxing Kaufmann back into the fold.
The Civic Opera House was virtually sold out for the event, which brought the Lyric Opera Orchestra and conductor Andrew Davis up from the pit onto the chandelier-festooned stage. They supported the singers with all due musical care and flexibility, against the palace wall set design from the currently running production of Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito."
Kaufmann got to sing arias by Verdi, Bizet and Massenet. Fleming delivered a Massenet aria and a Refice song in addition to joining the tenor for duets by Gounod, Verdi and Massenet.
As is often the case with these affairs, the artists' first joint concert resembled a fashion show as much as a showcase of operatic greatest hits. Fleming modeled a glamorous succession of designer gowns: the first a gown of burnished gold and silver, the second an iridescent, dark-green crepe de Chine.
Not to be outdone in the swank department, Kaufmann traded his black tuxedo jacket for a white jacket ahead of the concert's second half. The opera superstars got to indulge in bits of playful nuzzling and stroking each other's coifs. The fans roared with pleasure, their cellphone cameras flashing merrily.
Kaufmann's contributions represented roles that are central to his repertory (the title heroes of Gounod's "Faust" and Massenet's "Werther"; Don Jose in Bizet's "Carmen" and Des Grieux in Massenet's "Manon"), along with relatively new assumptions (Alvaro in Verdi's "La Forza del Destino") and a part he's planning for down the line (the title role in "Otello").
Everything the tenor sang bespoke virile intensity and admirable musical intelligence, his chocolaty baritonal shadings adding an intriguing expressive dimension to the singing. The only time he betrayed any vocal insecurity was the "Otello" love duet, in which his singing, with its trademark dusky covering, seemed rather tentative opposite Fleming's confident Desdemona.
Everything else showed how much Chicago has been missing in Kaufmann's long absence. His French items gloried in a winning combination of ardent vocalism, impeccable diction and technically flawless use of what the French call voix mixte, ethereally beautiful high notes that combine chest voice and head voice.
But the arias that drew the loudest ovations were the "Forza" and "Werther" excerpts.
Alvaro is a Verdi role Kaufmann sang for the first time late last year in Munich. His impassioned, full-throated, finely nuanced account of the hero's despairing soliloquy was matched by the eloquent clarinet solo of Charlene Zimmerman. It's hard to imagine a more riveting, stylish or supremely masculine Werther than Kaufmann, who sang this signature role as recently as last week in a new production at the Met.
Fleming and Kaufmann played to each other's vocal strengths in the third-act duet from "Faust" but especially in the third-act duet from "Manon" where Fleming's heroine poured on the seductive charm, with luscious sound and a seamless legato that melted the resolve of Kaufmann's Des Grieux, along with the hearts of audience members.
Their encores amounted to a schmaltz-fest of German opera and operetta duets that gave Kaufmann his only chance of the evening to sing in his native tongue. He and Fleming danced and sang a slow waltz to the romantic strains of "Lippen schweigen," from Lehar's "The Merry Widow." Together they infused the original duet version of "Gluck das mir verblieb," from Korngold's "Die Tote Stadt," with ravishing warmth
Fleming -- in her first local appearance since singing the National Anthem at this year's Super Bowl, to an audience estimated to be 112 million in the U.S. alone - sounded just about as glamorous as she looked. Too bad her account of the folksong "Danny Boy" was so mannered, all about beautiful singing and very little else. The diva's finest singing on her own came in Manon's touching farewell to her little table.
Davis and his orchestra vamped till the singers were ready with orchestral bits and pieces by Saint-Saens, Verdi and Michael Tippett. The first trumpet was having an off-night; everybody else played well. When will we hear Kaufmann again at Lyric? Soon, one hopes.
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