“Polenzani superb at Ravinia”

John von Rhein

Chicago Tribune

The proverbial hometown boy who made good, Matthew Polenzani apprenticed for two seasons at the Ryan Opera Center and has been a familiar and welcome presence on the Lyric roster ever since. So it came as a surprise to discover that Monday marked the Illinois-born tenor's Ravinia recital debut — and a most auspicious debut it was."

The incidence of notable opera singers who are equally comfortable in the recital medium is not as high as some would imagine, but Polenzani is a shining exception.

The beautiful, open quality of his pliant lyric instrument, his care for words and the emotions they convey, his ease of musical communication on an intimate scale, his natural stage presence — all came through in his discerning selection of songs to French, German and English texts. The supportive accompaniments were by pianist Kevin Murphy, director of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute program for singers.

Polenzani plunged into the Romantic thick of things with an ardent account of Beethoven’s “Adelaide” and two groups of Liszt songs to miscellaneous German texts and poems by Victor Hugo.

Liszt’s more than 70 songs may be the least-familiar aspect of his colossal oeuvre, but there are gems throughout, some songs quasi-operatic in expression, many calling for great virtuosity on the part of the pianist. The rapt beauty of sound with which Polenzani sustained the very end of “Wie singt die Lerche schon” was matched by his palpable emotional investment in the more familiar “Oh! quand je dors.” Murphy proved himself fully in command of the formidable keyboard writing.

It was nice to hear Ravel’s settings of five Greek folk songs delivered by a male singer, which is not the case most often. Polenzani set these colorful vignettes alongside the vaudeville-style amuse-bouche of three Erik Satie songs.

Even so, the highlight, for this listener, was Samuel Barber’s “Hermit Songs.” The 1953 cycle, based on sometimes worldly texts by Irish monks and scholars of the eighth-13th centuries, is most often sung by sopranos (Leontyne Price gave the premiere), but the 10 songs found a most convincing interpreter in Polenzani. Singer and pianist were fully inside each mood, from devout humility to gentle humor to melancholy introspection. It was hard to imagine the cycle sung more eloquently.

The directness, sincerity and unaffected simplicity that marked Polenzani’s singing were encapsulated in his tenderly moving rendition of “Danny Boy,” the first of two encores. Frank Bridge’s “Love Went A-Riding” capped off the short but rewarding recital with a fine flourish.