Lyric Opera of Chicago’s latest virtual concert celebrated singers and composers from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, Spain, Guatemala, Argentina and the US. Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center, which sponsored the concert, assembled an array of fine singers, most of whom are members or alums of the Ryan Center itself. The event was subtitled, “Celebrating music from the Spanish-speaking world with Ana María Martínez and Friends,” and Martínez was sparkling not only as a singer but also as host.
The concert opened with “Salida de Cecilia Valdés” by Gonzalo Roig and Agustín Rodriguez, sung by Martínez accompanied at the piano by Craig Terry. Martínez, born in Puerto Rico and with a father from Cuba, used her lovely lower register with an attractive friskiness, offering lots of personality as the music shifted from serious to playful, with Terry always providing a sympathetic accompaniment. The performance space was decked out in resplendent pink and orange curtains and featured several romantic chandeliers.
Tenor David Portillo provided an exciting rendition of “Sin tu amor” by Guatemalan-American composer Miguel Sandoval. This song from 1936 finds the singer longing for his love, with Portillo compelling in his singing, creating a fizzy happiness as he gives a moving account of his yearning to fall at the feet of the woman he adores.
Maria Grever (1885–1951) was the first Mexican-born woman composer to achieve international acclaim. Her most famous song, “What a Difference a Day Makes," was a big hit for Dinah Washington. Baritone Ricardo José Rivera took on Grever’s song “Júrame” and infused it with a range of smoldering emotions. The performance was understated, featuring a sensitive climax of great delicacy.
Soprano Denis Vélez was splendid singing “Carceleras” (“The Prisoners' Song”) by Ruberto Chapi (libretto by José Estremera), from the zarzuela “Las hijas del Zebedeo” (“The Daughters of the Zebedeo”). Vélez paired her alluring voice with an alluring dress in vibrant color and large pattern. Her performance was both exciting and delightful, the rapid lines and shifting moods expertly navigated.
Mexican composer Agustín Lara found success with his song “Granada”, which has been performed by countless Spanish-speaking singers, as well as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti. For Lyric’s concert, tenor Mario Rojas took on the happy task of celebrating the great Spanish city. He took on the persona of a man almost crazed in his aching for Granada, singing with his hair stylishly tangled, a face unshaven, and with a casual, unbuttoned shirt, all with a flaming red screen behind him. He offered a red-hot interpretation, gripping you from start to finish. His climactic high note embodied a near-madness of desire.
“La rosa y el sauce” (“The Rose and the Willow) by Carlos Guastavino, tells the story of a willow tree that loves a rose. When a girl steals the rose, the tree is left to weep in despair. Portillo was masterful in telling the story, his singing muted, almost hazy, in its sense of otherworldliness, in creating the tree’s love and loss.
Richard Ollarsaba was full of bluster and swagger with “¡Ay, Jalisco, no te rajes!” the most famous song by Mexican composer Manuel Esperón. The bass-baritone provided lots of swing and bounce in this catchy piece, with a good, long note near the end held a good, long time — almost as if merely for the joy of it. Terry provided crisp yet relaxed support at the piano.
Denis Vélez returned to the stage for the traditional Mexican song “La Llorona”. Her singing was both sad and haunting and she accompanied herself on guitar with touching simplicity.
The tango “Volver” by Carlos Gardel gave David Portillo as well as Craig Terry scope to display their rhythmic flexibility, with the tenor offering a sensitive performance.
“Quizás, quizás, quizás” by Osvaldo Farrés may be most well known to American audiences from Nat King Cole’s English version, “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps.” It was no less enchanting in Spanish, with baritone Ricardo José Rivera (who was inspired to become an opera singer after hearing a performance by Ana María Martínez) creating an affectionate, atmospheric sense of hope.
“Bella enamorada” (“Beautiful Lover”) is from the zarzuela “El ultimo romantic” (“The Last Romantic”) by Reveriano Otero Soutullo, Carbonell Vert, Arrillaga Tellaeche, and Altisent Amargas. Tenor René Barbera was engaging throughout, offering full-blooded declarations of love as well as moments of sadder passion, when he reflects that his love torments him.
Composer Monsita Ferrer was the aunt of Oscar-winning actor José Ferrer and achieved her own fame as both a pianist and composer. Martínez took on her song “Amanecer,” infusing it with expert phrasing and silky smooth singing. She then took on “Preciosa” by Rafael Hernández Marín, an anthem to Puerto Rico. She provided much color and feeling, imbuing the piece with adoration and pride.
She then joined forces with Portillo for Carlos Gardel’s “El día que me quieras” (“The Day that You’ll Love Me”), a lyrical tango. It was a charming duet, with Martínez showing the intriguing and lovely darker side of her voice and Portillo offering a sweet sound.
The final number on the program featured all the singers, mostly in separate screens, as well as Lyric Opera concertmaster Robert Hanford and five other instrumentalists. They offered a joyful performance of Rafael Hernández’s “El Cumbanchero." The excitement was electric and I found myself dancing in my chair. It was a fantastic way to end this multifaceted concert.
For future offerings by Lyric Opera of Chicago, visit LyricOpera.org.