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Renee Fleming and Susan Graham conjure up a Paris salon for delightful duo recital

Susan Graham (left) Renee Fleming duo recital Thursday Jan. 24 Lyric OperChicago. (Phoby Dan Rest/Lyric Opera) MUST CREDIT PIX pls.

Susan Graham (left) and Renee Fleming in a duo recital Thursday, Jan. 24 at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera) MUST CREDIT PIX, pls.

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Updated: February 27, 2013 6:13AM

Sometimes girls just want to have fun. And when the ladies involved are soprano Renee Fleming and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, two of the brightest stars in the operatic heavens, thousands of opera lovers want to party along with them.

Longtime friends and occasional colleagues, Fleming and Graham decided to team up this winter for something unusual for both of them: a duo-recital tour focusing on French music from La Belle Epoque (circa the late 1890s to early 1900s). After opening last week on the West Coast, they brought their intimate evening Thursday to a large crowd at the Civic Opera House. Accompanied only by piano, it was a well-crafted program of art songs and opera excerpts spiced with easygoing, informative commentary. Fleming and Graham are both down-to-earth divas, and opening each act with vintage recordings of legendary prima donna Mary Garden talking imperiously about her art was a lovely touch.

Both singers are Chicago favorites, appearing often with Lyric Opera of Chicago, which sponsored the concert. And some of their best work here has been in French repertoire. Fleming, now Lyric’s creative consultant, had a major success in Massenet’s “Thais” in 2002-03 here. Graham, who has a special affinity for French music, was compelling as Marguerite in Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust” at Lyric in 2009-10.

But oddly enough, Fleming didn’t seem entirely at home Thursday in either her solo songs by Debussy and Delibes or duets with Graham by Saint-Saens, Faure and Berlioz. She sounded underpowered and rushed at times, as if the French words set to long, flowing melodies or quick, folk-flavored rhythms were struggling to emerge. In the Italian- and German-language encores, however — the duets “Ah, guarda, sorella” from Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” and “The Night Prayer” from Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” — her singing regained its customary richness, warmth and color.

As for Graham, what’s French for hog heaven? She was in her element, turning a set of four solo songs by Reynaldo Hahn into atmospheric, mini-opera scenes. For her solo encore, she oozed onstage with cigarette in hand, the very image of a sexy chanteuse. Settling down to the piano, she accompanied herself in a touching version of “La vie en rose.” If the opera thing doesn’t work out for Graham, there’s a piano in some swanky Left Bank boite with her name written all over it.

With more than 3,500 seats, the Civic Opera House is by no means a cozy hall. But with artfully arranged potted palms and gloriously oversized projections of 19th century paintings from the Art Institute of Chicago, the vast stage became the very image of a luxurious Belle Epoque drawing room. Pianist Bradley Moore provided attentive, elegant accompaniment, but at times the large theater dwarfed the sound of his piano.

If you missed the concert, tune into WFMT-FM (98.7) at 7 p.m. Sunday for a live broadcast of the recital from Carnegie Hall, the next stop on the singers’ tour. It will include an interview with Fleming and Graham recorded during their Chicago visit.

Wynne Delacoma is a free-lance writer.

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