HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — Ingredients for a birthday party: Take two Mozart operas, stir in some expert soloists, combine with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra then add a pinch of nostalgia in the presence of a beloved, soon-to-retire singer.
That was the recipe followed by James Conlon, music director of the Ravinia Festival, to celebrate his own 60th birthday. He conducted back-to-back concert performances of "Cosi fan tutte" and "Le Nozze di Figaro" – heard on Saturday and Sunday afternoons – that set a musical standard any opera house would envy.
The cast for "Cosi" was led by Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez as Fiordiligi, one of two sisters whose faithfulness fails the test when their sweethearts pretend to be called away to military service. In her two arias, "Come scoglio" and "Per pieta," Martinez displayed pristine high notes and an alluring lower register, while negotiating octave-wide leaps, runs, trills and more with grace.
She was well-supported by an international cast that included Romanian mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose as her sister, Dorabella, Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov as her sweetheart, Guglielmo, and Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu as Ferrando, the friend who wins her heart away.
Pirgu's Act 1 aria "Un aura amorosa" had such honeyed sweetness that it attracted a flying insect he had to brush away from his face as he sang.
The sentimental highlight of "Cosi" was the casting of mezzo Frederica von Stade as the maid, Despina. This luminous artist, a favorite on stages worldwide since her Metropolitan Opera debut 40 years ago, is retiring from singing and has said this engagement would be her last in the Chicago area. Over the years, she may have lost a bit of voice at the top of her range, but not an iota of her class or charisma.
The cast was completed by another veteran, baritone Richard Stilwell, as the cynical Don Alfonso, who devises the plot that proves the women's fickleness.
Two young and highly promising sopranos with contrasting vocal attributes vied for top honors in "Figaro." Lisette Oropesa sang the role of Susanna with a sweet sound as pure as a silver bell. Ailyn Perez as the Countess has a darker hue to her voice that takes on a gorgeous, creamy quality in her upper register. When their voices blended in the ethereal letter duet, the result was magical – even though they momentarily lost their place.
The rest of the cast was almost in their league. Mezzo-soprano Lauren McNeese brought verve to the "trousers" role of Cherubino (once von Stade's calling card); John Relyea's bass voice boomed out mellifluously as Figaro, and baritone Nathan Gunn was alternately menacing and put-upon as the conniving Count. Among the many smaller roles, Paul Corona as the meddlesome gardener, Antonio, particularly impressed with a healthy bass sound and admirable flexibility.
Both afternoons the orchestra sounded superb as Conlon, often mouthing the words along with his soloists, worked his way lovingly through the scores. Members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus also made important contributions.
It was a treat to hear the operas in the Martin Theatre, a relatively intimate space that seats just 850 people. Although these were concert performances, directors Harry Silverstein for "Cosi" and David Lefkowich for "Figaro" tried for a semblance of stage action with a few props and costume changes. That worked pretty well in "Cosi," though the humor was played too broadly.
In "Figaro," all the running about grew distracting by the final scene.