Opera Provides Nice Lead-in to Venetian Night

July 27, 2009

The program shone the spotlight on two compelling young singers -- tenor Russell Thomas and soprano Nicole Cabell, an alumna of Lyric's training program who is forging a stellar international career for herself.

Saturday was one of those nights when downtown Chicago seemed to be the epicenter of a particularly delightful universe.

It was the city's annual Venetian Night, when scores of boat owners decorate their sailboats, yachts and miscellaneous vessels and parade up and down the lakefront between Roosevelt Road and Monroe Street. Despite a momentary splash of rain, the weather was balmy, and large crowds converged on the Loop to see the boats and post-parade fireworks.

Some came for an entirely different reason, however. Preceding the Venetian Night extravaganza, the Grant Park Music Festival offered its own kind of popular entertainment -- a concert of excerpts from well-known operas at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

The program shone the spotlight on two compelling young singers -- tenor Russell Thomas and soprano Nicole Cabell, an alumna of Lyric's training program who is forging a stellar international career for herself. They took center stage with the Grant Park Orchestra led by Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena in a rousing concert of arias from Gounod's "Faust'' and "Romeo et Juliette,'' Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love,'' Puccini's "La Boheme'' and Verdi's "La traviata."

Chicago opera lovers knew Cabell was a talent to watch from her earliest days at Lyric's training program, where she was in residence from 2002 to 2005. She has returned to Lyric in starring roles since then, and Saturday's concert offered a preview of what audiences will be hearing when she takes the Civic Opera House stage in January for five performances as Adina in "Elixir of Love.''

Cabell's soprano has a rich luster, and her seamless phrasing brings unusual depth and elegance to the characters she portrays. In the duet "Una parola, O Adina,'' from "Elixir," she had no trouble fending off Nemorino's unwelcome attention with gusts of high-flying, ornamented melody. But this Adina was not merely a flighty flirt. The dark undercurrent in Cabell's singing conveyed a thoughtfulness that made the capricious young woman endearingly human. In the duet "Va! Je t'ai pardonne'' from Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette,'' her sumptuous tone conveyed all the passion and terror of young love.

If Cabell returned as a welcome friend on Saturday, Thomas provided the thrill of discovery. A native of Miami with a resume that ranges from Tamino in "The Magic Flute" at the Metropolitan Opera to the Prince in John Adams' "The Flowering Tree'' in New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo, Thomas has a big, ardent tenor that was a fine match for Cabell's strong soprano. He has ringing top notes and sang with an emotional urgency that turned these stand-alone concert arias and duets into vivid dramas.

Mena, making his Chicago debut, drew warmly expansive playing from the Grant Park Orchestra, though occasionally his tempos dragged.

Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Sun-Times