The Best Singing in 2018 — Part Two: Oratorio, Storefront Opera, and Early Music

Fellow Travelers, Haymarket’s Erica Schuller, and Katherine Pracht

Fellow Travelers, Haymarket’s Erica Schuller, and Katherine Pracht

Mid-size and Baroque opera

At the mid-sized venues of the Athenaeum, Studebaker, Harris theaters, stylish artists thrived in lesser known operas. From the Editor’s perspective, it appears that the explicitly gay subject matter of Lyric Unlimited’s production of Fellow Travelers was an operatic event that finally attracted the younger (by younger, I mean 30’s and 40’s) generation of homosexual male audiences to the opera. Of course, opera has always had a higher proportion of gay male audience compared to, let’s say, hockey. As someone who attends opera in all its shapes and sizes across much of the city, I was delighted to see so many new faces queuing up at the Athenaeum Theater for Gregory Spears and Greg Pierce’s lyrical, sweet, sometimes sexy, and ultimately tragic love story between two men. The production, direction, and casting were strong all around —  Lyric did not squander the community’s interest in the project, thank goddess! It will be hard to forget the story’s central figure, Timothy, performed with such authenticity and sung so tenderly by tenor Jonas Hacker, that this audience member wanted to protect him from his circumstances. Katherine Pracht defied vocal categorization in the comprehensive title role of Kevin Puts/Mark Campbell’s Elizabeth Cree for Chicago Opera Theater at the Studebaker in February. Cree is an ideal 21st century work with melodic lyricism, clearly drawn characters, a little bit of circus, and a lot of blood-drenched crime. Puts’s music fit Katherine Pracht’s mezzo-soprano like a glove; and the drama and guts she injected into her singing made her a cross between Donizetti’s Queen Elizabeth and Sweeney Todd. Katherine Weber shined amidst a strong cast as Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, also for COT at the Studebaker in November. Weber’s instrument cuts like a knife while maintaining femininity. Sometimes the edginess of her tone was other-worldly, characterizing Iolanta as an outsider in a world that was designed to welcome her. COT’s casting of Weber, a Chicago resident, was a promising gesture towards promoting local singers, a stated goal under the company’s new leadership.   

Local treasure, soprano Erica Schuller, continued her reign as Haymarket Opera’s queen of comedy as Atalanta in Handel’s Serse last fall. Schuller’s physicality and perfectly timed gestures never betray the music. She is the rare singer whose gestures also come across in her phrasing. Don’t take the Editor’s word for it, go see Erica Schuller in Haymarket’s welcome reprisal of Telemann’s Pimpinone alongside her co-monarch, baritone Ryan de Ryke, this spring. Toronto’s Opera Atelier made a joyful Chicago debut in a double-bill of works in their signature style, the French Baroque. Singing (and dancing) by the attractive (and often semi-nude) cast was categorically excellent, but the virtuoso coloratura showcase aria “Règne, Amour” sung by tenor Colin Ainsworth left the lasting impression and Rameau-shaped earworm. Opera Atelier MUST come back and more of you need to witness historically-informed, yet still visceral Baroque opera at its best.

Lauren Decker and Sarah Gartshore

Lauren Decker and Sarah Gartshore

Oratorio and Vocal-Orchestral

Important artists joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra such as the velvet-toned Clémentine Margaine for a sensual Poéme de l'amour et de la mer in February and Amanda Forsythe, Paul Appleby, and Nick Phan singing on a tight rope for the ethereal “Et in carnatus est” trio in Schubert’s Eb Mass in March.  It was odd that a conductor known to champion Italian singers did not include one in the solo quartet for Rossini’s Stabat Mater in June (Krassimira Stoyanova, Ekaterina Gubanova, Dmitry Korchak, and Eric Owens). Also, I witnessed some poor fellow stifle his cough for about 20 minutes at this program because he was afraid of Riccardo Muti stopping the performance to admonish him. Despite not acknowledging other choral ensembles in this year-end review, Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus deserves a special mention for their achievement of a recognizably “period” approach to singing Handel’s Messiah under Matthew Halls in December.  Between engagements at Lyric Opera, Janai Brugger’s Classical era elegance was showcased in a Haydn’s Theresa Mass with Grant Park Music Festival Orchestra and Chorus at the Harris Theater in August. Amanda Majeski, Daniela Mack, Jonas Hacker, and Eric Owens were a dream quartet for the September presentation of Mozart’s Requiem by Music of the Baroque.

As satisfying as it was to hear all the marquee singers contribute their formidable talents to the concert hall, the most satisfying choral-orchestral performance for the Editor this year was the Verdi Requiem presented by the Apollo Chorus of Chicago (rather than CSO’s semi-annual CSO presentation). The venue for the March performance was the historic Holy Family Church in the Near West Side. The uncomfortable, worn wooden pews organized the capacity audience into regular groupings with terrible sightlines. The space is designed for contemplation, and perhaps for looking either straight ahead or with the head bowed in prayer, not for spotting four soloists amidst the 150+ musicians assembled for what felt like a monumental undertaking. No matter: the instrument of third-year Ryan Opera Center contralto Lauren Decker is beginning to fulfill its promise of volume, range, and drama. Her alloyed tone penetrated through the chorus, orchestra, audience, and probably beyond the church walls out to Roosevelt Road. To add to the excitement, the spicy tone of soprano Sarah Gartshore blended brilliantly with Decker. Gartshore concluded the Requiem with a passionately sung “Libera me” which gained more emotional charge after the performance when we learned of the soprano’s battle with breast cancer. Sarah Gartshore returned to singing in December and Vocal Arts Chicago gratefully anticipates more exceptional performances from this favorite artist.

Jakub Józef Orliński

Jakub Józef Orliński

Early Music

Third Coast Baroque made a big leap as an organization by presenting Vivica Genaux in an all-Vivaldi program in April which concluded with the crowd-pleasing signature encore “Agitata da due venti.” The expense of adding such an in-demand artist, one of the best bel canto technicians alive, was a risk that Vocal Arts Chicago hopes will be repeated and rewarded by other fans. TCB backed up their success with an adventurous program centered on High Baroque composers in Austria which showcased some of Chicago’s most skilled interpreters of rare scores: sopranos Nathalie Colas and Kaitlin Foley, mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker, and bass-baritone David Govertsen. A da capo lament by Francesco Conti, “Bramo più lunga pena,” sung by Colas was the show-stopper – as dramatic and impressive as Vivica in Vivaldi.

Music of the Baroque introduced Jakub Józef Orliński to Chicago audiences in Concertos for Voice with Sherezade Panthaki led by Paul Agnew in April. The Polish countertenor demonstrated that his rising star is not only attributed to his model good looks, or his notorious side-hustle as a breakdancer, but for his musical intelligence and compelling tone quality. In the opening movement of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, Orliński honed his instrument and de-emphasized his entrances to create a series of the most mysterious, cutting suspensions ever experienced in this oft-performed work. Coloratura fireworks in the Vivaldi solo cantata Nisi Dominus, even tone quality at both extremes of register, and fully engaged, generous stage presence made for one of the most memorable Chicago debuts of the year. If Orliński were not on this program, we would be talking about Sherezade Panthaki who continues to prove why she is the preferred soprano of Early Music luminaries like Nicholas McGegan, Masaaki Suzuki, Mark Morris, and Matthew Halls. Panthaki is an artist who communicates so much with just her tone and phrasing, she can transform a cantata like Handel’s Salve Regina into an opera-in-miniature while never pushing the drama past the boundaries of good taste. Panthaki’s shimmering voice brings the warmth coupled with brightness of Martina Arroyo to mind.

Bella Voce also moved their position as proponents of Early Music forward with the debut of Bella Voce Sinfonia in Bach’s B Minor Mass in November. Soloists for the arias stepped forward from the chamber chorus – an increasingly difficult feat as the mass progressed. Tenor Matthew Dean somehow managed to preserve his best tone and execute sensitive, thoughtful phrases in the Benedictus aria, as if he weren’t the only tenor singing both the concertino sections and the tutti chorus movements at full tilt for the length of Bach’s demanding score.

Vera Bowser Schmitz, Jonathan Wilson, Bruno Rivera

Vera Bowser Schmitz, Jonathan Wilson, Bruno Rivera

Storefront Opera

Chicago’s storefront opera companies made efforts to distinguish themselves from one another with their programming, while continuing to share musicians, stage directors, and conductors. Vera Bowser Schmitz’s luxurious voice is fit for grand opera, but she can make any venue in which she sings sound like it has the perfect acoustic. Her Fairy Godmother for New Moon Opera’s spunky production of Pauline Viardot’s Cendrillon in April was one of the most joyful performances of the year. Countertenor Bruno Rivera was the discovery of the year as the Plaintiff in Transgressive Theatre-Opera’s September production of Trial by Jury. Rivera vaulted full-throated high notes that rang in the ears long after the comedy was finished – an exciting young artist to watch if opera companies can figure out how to capitalize on his unique talents. The reliably excellent soprano Diana Stoic and baritone Jonathan Wilson made the most of their assignments this year, both in queer-themed operas. Stoic’s soaring tone never wavered in Third Eye Theatre Ensemble’s October presentation of Patience and Sarah at Theater Wit. Hopefully, Third Eye’s move to Theater Wit will increase the exposure of this company which emphasizes stories about women. Wilson, yet again, gave one of the best vocal performances in any category as the Poet in When Adonis Calls for Thompson Street Opera in December at Pride Films & Plays (Uptown). Read last year’s Best Of list for praise of Wilson’s artistry, he only gets better. All of Chicago’s storefront opera companies are smart to engage him. The question is: how long can they keep him before the rest of the opera world catches on to his inimitable skills?

Mario Rojas with Shannon McGinnis

Mario Rojas with Shannon McGinnis

Opera with Piano – a dubious category

When events that would be classified as recitals get names like “Bernstein and Friends” or “Day and Night,” one forgives the stretching of the format for the chance to hear beloved artists singing opera arias at the piano. Anna Netrebko was both outrageous and ravishing in her night-and-day themed concert with Malcolm Martineau in December, replete with Mylar balloon and flower bouquet props, an It’s-Raining! invoking supernumerary, and a staring contest with a violinist. Both “Depuis le jour” and “The Silver Aria” from The Ballad of Baby Doe were beautifully rendered, showing off one of Netrebko’s best tricks – long-held tones that waft into the house and make you forget all the excess. Nadine Sierra and Michael Fabiano allocated the majority of the “Bernstein and Friends” program to art song and/or Bernstein selections at Ravinia Festival with pianist Kevin Murphy. But the reward for the embarrassingly modest-sized audience in the Martin Theatre on August 10 was certainly Fabiano’s heart-wrenching “Kudà, kudà” from Eugene Onegin and the white-hot Saint Sulpice Scene from Manon with Sierra’s meltingly seductive “N’est-ce plus Manon?” Back to the audience size: Nadine Sierra rightfully lamented the turnout in one of her spoken introductions. If Nadine Sierra and Michael Fabiano cannot fill an 850 seat venue, we have a problem. The Editor of Vocal Arts Chicago blames himself for not insisting that you go.

The Harris Theater and Lyric Opera’s co-series Beyond the Aria on the stage of the Pritzker Pavilion regularly presents the stars and future stars of opera with Craig Terry at the piano. If this series were less cost- and capacity-prohibitive, the Editor would share some of the incredible performances of the past year which included Anthony Clark Evans singing the Prologue from Pagliacci, Andrew Stenson singing Rinuccio’s aria from Gianni Schicchi, and Jamie Barton singing “Acerba voluttà.” The series goes on sale in late summer, if you want to be one of the few to snag a subscription.

Finally, and maybe the reason for tacking on this dubious sub-category, is to remind you that the Ryan Opera Center currently, but perhaps for not much longer, engages Mexican tenor Mario Rojas. He will be a star and every time I have heard him sing, he has brought a smile to my face and pulled at my heartstrings. His confidence and charisma may be too much for conservative audiences, but not for me. I love his pride for his heritage, his enthusiastic support of his colleagues which can often be heard coming from the wings of the stage, his fashion sense (to borrow a phrase: like a FIFA player on vacation), and his Italianate, sunny sound. At the Ryan Opera Center Audition Finals in September, Rojas gave a blissful performance of the Italian Singer aria from Der Rosenkavalier. He took the opportunity to inform the audience that he was, in fact, Mexican. If this annoyed some, or made some consider their prejudices, all the better.