Review: An engaging ‘Sound of Music’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago (UPDATED) – STLtoday.com

CHICAGO – When a major opera company produces a show like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music,” it had better offer something different — and better — than the usual standard. In its current production of the popular favorite, Lyric Opera of Chicago largely succeeds.

The Lyric, now presenting a classic Broadway musical at the end of each regular season of grand opera, reportedly built the cast for this one around a pair of serious singers, internationally renowned sopranos Christine Brewer and Elizabeth Futral. There’s a real orchestra in the pit, with more real singers in the ensemble — and a blessed absence of silly dedications in the performers’ bios, too.

The original score and book (with the addition of the two songs added for the movie version) were used instead of the film’s rearrangements. With LOC’s high standards and genuine concern for the musical part of “musical theater,” this is a show that opera lovers can enjoy.

As Maria, the sometime novice/world’s greatest stepmother, LOC engaged a solid Broadway performer, Jenn Gambatese. On Saturday night, she was the charismatic, immensely likeable heart of the show, singing, dancing, wholeheartedly supporting her colleagues, and selling every song. This is one hardworking performer, and none of it is wasted effort.

If there was a little cognitive dissonance in hearing two great sopranos — one noted for Isolde and the other for coloratura roles like Lakmé — singing in essentially mezzo-soprano ranges, it was still sound casting on LOC’s part. Brewer, whose own vocation has taken a turn to the religious life lately (she created the role of Sister  Aloysius in the operatic version of “Doubt” last year, and she’ll return to Opera Theatre of St. Louis next month in “Dialogues of the Carmelites”) was appropriately wise and loving as the Abbess, and she knocked her big tune, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” out of the park. Her voice and presence helped immeasurably in the show’s success.

Futral (who will come to OTSL this spring for a very different role, Alice B. Toklas in the world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s “27”) worked her chest voice, and was coolly sexy as Captain von Trapp’s wealthy and pragmatic fiancée, Elsa Schrader. The role and dramatic arc of the show were greatly enhanced by restoring the two trios in which she sings. Elsa’s partner in cynicism was Max Detweiler, played to fey perfection by character actor Edward Hibbert. (Hibbert would make an excellent Gilbert & Sullivan patter-song baritone.)

There is a black hole in the production; unfortunately, it’s the performer who’s the show’s nominal headliner, movie actor Billy Zane as Captain Georg von Trapp. Zane, best known for his turn as the Snidely Whiplash-esque fiancé of the Kate Winslet character in “Titanic,” is a handsome fellow who was most credible as the icy martinet of his first scenes. He never really did thaw, though. He had little presence, no chemistry with Gambatese (when they finally kissed, she was clearly the instigator), and he’s a terrible singer by any standard. In their scenes with him, Futral, Hibbert, and Gambatese knocked themselves out, attempting and failing to engage with him, vivid planets circling a cold dead star.

The children — headed by Betsy Farrar as Liesl, with Brady Tutton (Friedrich), Julia Schweizer (Louisa), Michael Harp (Kurt), Isabelle Roberts (Brigitta), Kylee Hennes (Marta) and Nicole Scimeca (Gretl) — were delightful, with differentiated characters and good voices. (Both Julia and Michael have worked extensively in St. Louis.)

There were many fine voices in the ensemble, and they were used with admirable exactitude; unfortunately, too many individual voices stuck out, and the blend was not good. Conductor Rob Fisher kept things together and moving.

Marc Bruni’s direction was clear and well-considered, and he kept the smarm quotient down, probably as far as it’s possible to achieve with this show. LOC veteran Michael Yeargan’s set designs were traditional, attractive, and practical.

Lyric Opera of Chicago presents Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” • Through May 25 • $29 to $175 • lyricopera.org or 312-827.5600

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