The U.S. has long had three major opera companies--the Met, Chicago Lyric, and San Francisco. Add to that Santa Fe and Glimmerglass in the summer, St. Louis in late spring, and you've covered the best. Last night, during a brief trip to Chicago, I finally made it to the Lyric here. The present company only dates to 1953 but there was a predecessor that went back to 1910 until it folded in 1946.
The occasion was a celebratory concert aimed at subscribers featuring Renee Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, with the house orchestra led by music director Sir Andrew Davis. They are of course possibly the leading soprano and baritone now singing, which was the point, because the concert recognized the succession of a new general manager for Lyric who is replacing Bill Mason, who led the company for the past 15 years and broke in right at its start in 1953 as a boy soprano in Tosca.
His reflections at the intermission reminded me that Chicago still stands for the principle of starting right at the top. The company's first manager, Carol Fox, took off for Italy and returned with casts that included Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano,Jussi Bjoerling, and Tito Gobbi (not sure whether she caught up with Bjoerling, the great Swedish tenor, in Italy or not). It's a quality you have to admire in the Windy City. The original John D. Rockefeller did it the same way a bit more than a century ago by supporting the first president of the University of Chicago in hiring enough great faculty to place it immediately among the great universities of the world.
More to the operatic point, the delightful singing last night made me realize that there are not innumerable great operatic settings for the soprano-baritone combination. The dynamic duo opened with Verdi--where Simon Boccanegra and Amelia realize they are father and daughter, and ended the act with Leonora pleading with the Count di Luna for Manrico's life in Il Trovatore. In between, Hvorostovsky added yet more Verdi with Rigoletto's "O vile race of courtiers"--here was where I wish they had kept on with the Act II singing right to the great soprano-baritone finish of the act with the successive high notes.
There was some more bravura numbers--the great soprano aria beloved by sopranos from Adriana Lecouvreur, probably because, like Tosca, it's an opera about a prima donna, and then Wolfram's wonderful aria from Tannhauser. There were plenty of Russians in the audience--and not just in the seats up top where we were (we got two of the last few seats available a few weeks before the concert) and they and everyone else must have been delighted to hear the rendition of that wonderful scene near the end of Eugene Onegin where Tatiana puts it to Onegin, who after rejecting her when she was young, is madly in love with her when she has become rich and respected.
As the saying goes, you don't hear singing like this every day or any day. It was a wonderful evening and certainly made me want to return to the Lyric, which will present Aida, Showboat and Rinaldo later this season. Apparently, just as opera stars always will work in their schedules some time to enjoy San Francisco, the human quality of Chicago opera management has enticed them back over the years: Fleming is now the creative consultant and a vice president. Even the encore had some flair--a bauble from Lehar's The Merry Widow, perhaps the operetta which is closest to opera. It always holds up--and that includes when I happened to see it presented in Lithuanian some years ago in Kaunas, Lithuania.