The Best Singing in 2018 — Part One: Opera Stars and Champions of Song

The Year in Review

Be they honking-big instruments capable of thrilling 3,500 listeners at once, or finely detailed sotto voce phrases that hold the intimate audience captive, a comprehensive list of great singing performances that happened around Chicago in 2018 would be too unfair to limit to an arbitrary number. This year, Vocal Arts Chicago groups the most memorable performances into seven categories, which, regrettably, excludes vocal ensembles and choral performances.

Janai Brugger and Artur Ruciński

Janai Brugger and Artur Ruciński

Lyric Opera: The stars who delivered and the artists whom we want to see again

The house debuts of Tamara Wilson, Janai Brugger, and Ailyn Pérez exceeded expectations. Coincidentally, all three have strong connections to Chicago, which makes one wonder why it took so long for these artists in the primes of their careers to be presented to their hometown audiences. With her creamy tone coupled with chaste phrasing, Brugger lifted both productions in which she took part: Turandot in June and Idomeneo in October. Ailyn Pérez and Benjamin Bernheim sang so confidently in Kevin Newbury’s new production of Faust, exhibiting power without the sacrifice of tone quality, that one was reminded why this five-act opera used to be considered thrilling. Tamara Wilson and Artur Ruciński gave technical masterclasses in their chestnut Trovatore arias – true bel canto singing: dynamic variability on every pitch, legato phrasing, and consistent vibrato in every register. Both Danielle de Niese and Christine Goerke returned to do what they do best, offering no surprises, and making us grateful for such reliable displays of skill (scenery-chewing and helden-heldening). The casting that made us look more carefully at our program books included Marianne Crebassa as a Dorabella worth gambling one’s intergrity for; Adrian Sâmpetrean’s dignified and stylistically ideal Giorgio in I Puritani; Marie-Eve Munger’s scene-stealing Fairy Godmother in Cendrillon; and the aforementioned star turns by Bernheim and Ruciński.

Soprano Laura Dixon Strickling

Soprano Laura Dixon Strickling

Songs

Apart from the consistent offerings of Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, superior performances of art song were a challenge to find inside city limits. But if you knew where to look, there were, in fact, engaging stories told and important works introduced in the medium which can feel like the reverse of grand opera. One had to venture out to Cantigny Park in Naperville to experience the remarkable duo of baritone John Brancy and pianist Peter Dugan in their highly original approach to WWI-era song. Much of the repertoire they performed can be found on their recording A Silent Night: A WWI Memorial in Song, or on YouTube which captures their mind-meld collaboration and movie star good-looks. What you can’t glean from recordings is the cumulative effect this program has on audiences, especially when the artists are attempting to make neophytes “cross-over” to a classical art form. Their arrangement of Ivor Novello’s “Keep the Home Fires Burning” still rings in my ears as if I had witnessed bombs dropping. The German tenor Christoph Prégardien — one of his generation’s best — and the preeminent collaborator Julius Drake delivered world class interpretations of Schubert at University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall in February. The editor shall not forget the ghostly, barely phonated tone Prégardien employed for the duration of “Nacht und Träume,” or the increasing warmth and intensity drawn from a new reserve of breath near the end of the program in the climactic phrases of “Du bist die Ruh.” Soprano Jeanine de Bique and pianist Rebecca Pacheco gave Highland Park audiences a program that was as thrilling as Prégardien/Drake’s was disciplined. From impossibly fast coloratura, to spoken introductions between sets relating the repertoire to personal experience, to emotional extremes conveyed with tone and gesture, de Bique refused to let the audience just sit back and let their ravishing sound wash over you. Another champion of song, Chicago native Laura Dixon Strickling, gathered 14 musicians in February for the recital America's Paradise: From Darkness to Light to benefit the recovery efforts in the hurricane-devastated U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Like de Bique, in the program finale “Crickets” with text by William Heyen set by Tom Cipullo, Strickling and pianist Andrew Rosenblum asked the audience to “listen, maybe for the last time on earth” — a call to action. It was an important work to hear for the occasion, performed by a master of her craft. The song’s rebuke of apathy continues to sting.