Polenzani ready for the challenge of “Hoffmann” at the Lyric Opera

Wynne Delacoma

The Classical Review

Tenor Matthew Polenzani was looking at two important debuts in Chicago last week. The first was one that local music lovers have been anticipating for months, the vibrant lyric tenor’s first outing in the role of the tortured title character in Offenbach’s often dark, often effervescent opera, The Tales of Hoffmann."

He stars — along with three leading ladies, Anna Christy, Erin Wall and Alyson Cambridge — in the production that opens Lyric’s 57th season Saturday night.

Chicago opera lovers have had their eye on Polenzani since 1995-1997 when he was a standout member of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center (then known as the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists). His career has risen steadily since then, and he is a regular headliner at the Metropolitan Opera and frequent guest at major opera houses throughout the world. Most recently local audiences have enjoyed his portrayals of Romeo in Lyric’s production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette in late 2006 and Belmonte in Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio in March 2009.

But during an interview backstage between rehearsals of Hoffmann last week, Polenzani was also excited about another local debut, one that would take place a few miles southeast of the Civic Opera House. He was scheduled to sing the National Anthem before the Chicago Bears-Green Bay Packers game at Soldier Field. A native of Evanston whose parents have lived in Wilmette for the past 20 years, he was, to put it mildly, pumped.

Wearing an Old Navy sweatshirt, jeans and well-worn white running shoes, Polenzani twirled a pair of sunglasses as he chatted happily about the prospect of singing in the stadium where he had spent many a Sunday rooting for the Bears.

“I asked if I could wear my Urlacher jersey,” he said with mischievous smile, “but they said no.” Rather than offering a tip of the jersey to Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, Polenzani wore business casual for his appearance at a soggy Soldier Field where the Packers swamped the Bears 27-17.

The outcome is likely to be much more pleasant for all concerned during the October run of The Tales of Hoffmann. This may be Polenzani’s debut in the role, but Emmanuel Villaume, who will conduct Lyric’s performances, has been impressed with the young tenor’s work.

“It’s really remarkable to see someone tackle such a difficult and demanding role the way he is doing it,” said Villaume. “He’s extremely well-prepared, and he’s marking the role with his personality. He’s creating an interpretation that is totally his own.”

Read the entire feature via The Classical Review