The second entry in Lyric Opera’s five-year traversal of the blockbuster entries of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon fares far better than last year’s inaugural entry “Oklahoma!, ” to be sure. Leaving aside questions of why Lyric, already struggling to present a wide diversity of operatic repertoire, should be focusing its limited resources on populist musical theater that is already widely performed and available in other local venues—to say nothing of why Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first work should be followed by their last—the fact remains that the company’s new production of “The Sound of Music” is one of the best new productions of any work done by Lyric in a long while.
To begin with, Broadway veteran Jenn Gambatese as Maria places her own stamp on a role that was originally created for Mary Martin, by then an elderly music-theater matron whose iconic status seeped over into her portrayal. She also managed to sidestep the immense shadow of the all-too-practically-perfect-in-every-way movie incarnation of Julie Andrews in her first film after winning an Oscar as another nanny, “Mary Poppins.”
Gambatese plays Maria as what she was, a naïve young girl who is going through the motions of attempting to find meaning in an empty life, whether fitting in at a convent, or in a household of children barely much older and sometimes much wiser, than she is. Most Marias make a journey of self-discovery, but Gambatese keeps the character’s naiveté out front throughout the show, adding refreshing credibility to the proceedings. She is no opera singer, to be sure, but no matter: she has a delightful show voice that fits Maria’s character and songs like a glove.
It also makes her moments with Mother Abbess, portrayed by soprano Christine Brewer who nearly steals the show, all the more meaningful as Brewer has the gravitas, maturity and, of course, a voice that can bat “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” out of the park, as indeed she does, at the end of Act I and again at the show’s climax.
The only other opera singer in the production aside from bit parts and choristers is soprano Elizabeth Futral as the Baroness, usually a mezzo role, who is called upon to sing two songs that are often cut: “How Can Love Survive” and “No Way to Stop It.” Futral’s characterization is definitely on the dark side, yet she remains consistently charming. Her few singing moments make you grateful that the Captain doesn’t make his mate choice based on singing. Futral also has the problem of singing with veteran actor Edward Hibbert as Max, whose voice is only mediocre, though he more than compensates with a more in-depth characterization of a usually thankless role.
As for actor Billy Zane as the Captain, he certainly has the character’s woodenness down, but unlike Maria, the Captain has to change, at least somewhat, for the show to work dramatically. Here, that change is minimized, perhaps limited by how little Zane brings to his singing. There is a small voice there and he can carry a tune, though he seems quite ill at ease doing so. “Edelweiss,” a key emotional moment in the show, is unfortunately squandered by how uncomfortable Zane seems to be singing it. Someone should show him how to at least look like he can play the guitar, and how to emote the meaning of the words as he is singing: the rest could be overlooked if he didn’t seem so uneasy.
Director Marc Bruni, making his Lyric debut, deserves much of the credit for how effective this production is, although his decision to drop “An Ordinary Couple” and replace it with the inferior “Something Good” from the film as well as to include the film’s “I Have Confidence” do not fit with the rest of the show as it was originally written.
Rob Fisher, making his Lyric debut, made the Lyric Opera Orchestra an amazingly effective pit orchestra, perfectly achieving the lightness and flexibility needed for the score. Kudos as well for Michael Yeargan’s spectacular sets, Alejo Vietti’s costumes, Denis Jones’ choreography and Michael Black’s splendid chorus.
Amplification, which was such a distraction at “Oklahoma!” has been significantly improved, although this remains a work in progress in a cavernous opera house designed for artists to perform without it. Some performers need a fair amount, others little, if any, except when speaking. But at least the majority of the sound is coming from the stage this time around, a significant improvement. (Dennis Polkow)
At the Civic Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive, (312)827-5600. Through May 25.