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Lyric Opera’s night at the Pritzker could have been starrier

The annual Stars Lyric Operconcert Millennium Park played host Lyric OperSaturday evening with full house  September 8 2012. |

The annual Stars of Lyric Opera concert, in Millennium Park played host to the Lyric Opera Saturday evening with a full house on September 8, 2012. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 11, 2012 6:20AM

Simply having an annual free concert by Lyric Opera of Chicago at the ever-stunning Pritzker Pavilion and Millennium Park is a tremendous display of civic and company pride that allows little criticism.

That 10,000 or more people — and tens of thousands more via live radio and web broadcast by WFMT-FM (98.7) and — can sit outside on a perfect late summer Saturday night and hear a full 90 minutes of music from a magnificent opera orchestra, a versatile and idiomatic guest conductor, the very fine Lyric Opera Chorus (for the first time at this annual offering) and an array of resident and guest Lyric singers is something for which Lyric, its generous corporate and individual sponsors, Millennium Park and City Hall must be commended.

And the state of most of these components was something quite satisfying to behold. Even after a five-month break as a unit (many of the players perform separately with summer festivals, including Grant Park), the Lyric Orchestra played splendidly in repertoire ranging from Verdi to Wagner and back to Verdi, the “verismo” of Mascagni and finally Bizet, in a prelude without singers, in magnificent partnership with the chorus in three selections and with the soloists and chorus in the two presentations of a full act each from “La traviata” and “Carmen.”

The chorus also was giving a preview of its work with Martin Wright, who takes up the chorus master position here next month after the resignation of Donald Nally to pursue non-operatic work and a yeoman’s interim helming last season by Michael Black. Omens from Saturday evening were all good.

Stephen Lord, popular music director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, made friends here with his Lyric debut conducting “Tosca” in the 2009-10 season and returns this season for “Don Pasquale.” He is a can-do fellow in all the best senses and made hearing the orchestra onstage instead of its usual home in a pit all the more pleasurable in all selections.

But (and you knew this was coming) there was a real problem here with both billing and casting of the front-of-stage singers. Surely the audience at the “Stars of Lyric Opera” concert was entitled to at least one actual international “star.” And given that the members of Lyric’s excellent Ryan Center training program now also have an annual free summer concert at the Pritzker, what differentiates this event when eight of the 13 singers were current apprentices and three were recent graduates still forming their careers — and voices?

Of the two remaining lead performers, American dramatic soprano Christine Goerke offered not only the only vocal fireworks of the evening but the only truly artistic and memorable performance. On stage for only five minutes, with “O don fatal” from Verdi’s “Don Carlos” in its original French version, Goerke created a total character with her voice, a stunning, strong instrument that spans and fills a wide range. Goerke makes her astonishingly belated Lyric debut next month with the title role of the season-opening “Elektra” of Richard Strauss. It looks as if we are in for a real treat. American tenor Brandon Jovanovich, justifiably becoming a Lyric regular, oversold his Don Jose in the stand-alone concert format of the concluding Act 4 of “Carmen.”

As I’ve written before, it’s not the fault of young artists when they are put before the public in major roles too soon, it’s the fault of the opera companies that do so. Soprano Susanna Phillips and tenor Rene Barbera, leads in the “Traviata” act, just are not ready for these roles at a Lyric level. Their fellow Ryan alumna soprano Amber Wagner has shown in the past that she can be. Perhaps it was her way with the microphone in the outdoor setting, but the part of Santuzza in the Easter Hymn scene of Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana” has to grow organically and emotionally and not just burst Kate Smith-like from her entrance and climb over both chorus and orchestra. The chorus for its part also excelled in the Act 2 “Entrance of the Guests” from “Tannhaeuser” and the beloved Act 3 Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves,”Va pensiero,” from “Nabucco.”

The Lyric season opens at the Civic Opera House Oct. 6.

Andrew Patner is critic at large at WFMT.

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