at Ravinia, July 8

Musical crossovers come in all varieties, and one borrowing from the pop side has proved remunerative for a very select group of opera singers: the arena concert. In a classical arena concert, as in a pop or rock concert, the aim is to jam the maximum number of fans into a large venue for maximum profit. Amplification is of course required, but the fans do get to see and hear a favorite performer live without sitting through a lot of music that doesn’t interest them. And it’s an easy gig for the singer. Thus far only two opera singers are real arena draws: superstar tenors Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti (who was at the Rosemont Horizon in December).

In his arena concerts Domingo has an established formula: he teams up with a young, appealing soprano, a minor-league conductor, and an orchestra that accompanies the singers and plays a couple of operatic overtures as filler. Taking turns with the soprano, he performs a few popular arias, and they join in some duets. They are also generous with their encores. This works well for all concerned: the audience, who get a pleasant evening’s entertainment; the soprano, who gets exposure and the chance to say she’s sung with Domingo; the conductor and instrumentalists, who get a gig; and the promoters, who make some money from a crowd that’s not prone to trashing the setting. Purists may sneer, but anything that exposes more people to good music and provides musicians with employment is fine with me.

On Friday night Domingo brought his arena format to the Ravinia Festival, where it proved a bit more problematic. Although thousands of people carpeted the lawn listening to the singing via loudspeaker, Ravinia is not an arena and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is not the usual musical aggregation found playing in a stadium, to say the least. Sure, this is a lot less formal than Orchestra Hall, but when the cheap seats inside the pavilion cost $100 each, the audience deserves a little more.

Specifically, it deserves a more exalted soprano than Kallen Esperian. Esperian is an attractive, large-boned young woman (unattractively gowned in what looked like Guinevere’s bridal dress from a dinner-theater production of Camelot) with a good if somewhat steely voice, a rather stiff attitude, and an irritating tendency to bounce up onto her toes at the end of every phrase. Her singing was more than adequate on most of her numbers, but she was simply out of her depth. Domingo’s gestures demonstrated his assurance and experience; hers, when she used any, seemed somewhat unnatural and forced. For a pricey gala performance like this, a more appropriate partnering would have been with someone like Carol Vaness or Kiri Te Kanawa–a real opera star, in other words.

The program got off to a rough start with Domingo essaying an aria he would never perform in a theater, “Dalla sua pace” from Don Giovanni, sung with a notable lack of breath control. It was followed by Esperian performing an aria she would never sing in a theater, Susanna’s “Deh, vieni, non tardar,” from The Marriage of Figaro; Esperian’s darkness and weight of tone should have suggested the Countess instead. The CSO, sounding terribly underrehearsed, stumbled through a mediocre, not-together reading of the overture to Verdi’s Les vepres siciliennes, in which the brass players managed to largely obliterate their colleagues’ sound.

Things steadily improved after that, with the real Domingo emerging in his third number, “Quando le sere al placido” from Verdi’s Luisa Miller, and delivering a knockout rendition of “E lucevan le stelle,” Cavaradossi’s third-act aria from Puccini’s Tosca. Esperian’s voice seemed better suited to Puccini and Charpentier than to Mozart or Verdi, and she and Domingo did a nice job on the duet “Il se fait tard, adieu!” from Gounod’s Faust. The CSO remembered its identity in time to provide a sprightly interpretation of the familiar overture to Rossini’s Barber of Seville.

Some of the duets seemed to have been chosen somewhat randomly–“Hey, here’s another soprano-tenor duet we could throw in!”–and “Esulti pur la barbara” from Donizetti’s Elixir of Love was an odd choice for both singers. Domingo handled all of Nemorino’s notes just fine (and the byplay was amusing), but the inherent nobility of his tone undermined the character’s rustic buffoonery. Some additional Puccini–from La boheme, perhaps–would have suited the gifts of both singers better, as would selections from, say, Carmen, which could have replaced the Mozart group that opened the concert and been even more popular with the assembled throng.

Five encores were offered to the enthusiastic audience, with introductions by a relaxed and charming Domingo: a zarzuela aria, Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro,” a duet from Lehar’s Merry Widow (with a little waltzing thrown in for good measure), “Granada,” and the brindisi from La traviata. In some ways, this was the most successful part of the program; it was more relaxed, and Domingo seemed to be having more fun.

Conductor Eugene Kohn managed to hold things together, but not much more. He was ineffectual in his duties as accompanist and seemed faintly apologetic whenever he had to cross behind the singers to get to the podium. This concert marked a first: it was broadcast live over a WFMT relay to passengers on United Airlines, the corporate sponsor of the evening.

One final note: Ravinia is a gracious and enjoyable spot for a summer’s evening of entertainment. All of its facilities are top-notch, with one deplorable exception: the women’s lavatories, which are grossly inadequate in number and 20 minutes before the concert’s beginning were in virtually third-world condition.