Susanne Mentzer | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Susanne Mentzer

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SUSANNE MENTZER

Many of the world's most memorable opera singers--from Lotte Lehmann and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to Dawn Upshaw and Thomas Hampson--have also achieved greatness in the intimate recital setting, where they can emphasize subtleties of emotional color. Chicago-based mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, who only recently began giving recitals herself, is poised to join their ranks. The Philadelphia native has been one of America's finest operatic actresses for nearly two decades, but such success doesn't guarantee that a singer will be a great switch-hitter: Maria Callas could convey almost supernatural passion as, say, Norma, but when she gave a recital that same intensity often made her performances seem overripe. Mentzer, on the other hand, has never been especially over-the-top, and thus doesn't have to tone down to embrace the song repertoire; she relies not on sheer power but on sophistication and intelligence--as well as her shimmering voice. She almost didn't become a singer: in the mid-70s she was studying for a career in music therapy when she apprenticed at the Aspen Music Festival and, as an understudy, ended up performing in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann. She made her formal stateside debut in 1981 in Houston, and her European debut followed in '83 in Cologne, where she played Cherubino. Extraordinarily flexible, she excels in both trouser and skirt roles--her credits include Strauss's Oktavian, Purcell's Dido, and Zerlina in Don Giovanni--and her coloratura is secure and always emotionally apt. She's had regular gigs at the Met and Lyric Opera as well as in European houses, and in Chicago she organizes "Jubilate," a benefit series on behalf of the AIDS hostel Bonaventure House. Her recital program at Ravinia is a survey of songs written by women entitled "The Eternal Feminine," and it's organized around themes like spirituality, love, and motherhood. The composers include Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler (wives of Robert and Gustav), as well as modern trailblazer Libby Larsen. On Mentzer's recent CD with guitarist Sharon Isbin, Wayfaring Stranger (Erato), she displays a sure grasp of everything from folk idioms to lieder--roughly the same range she'll cover at this concert--and her phrasing is thoughtful and sculptural. If she matches those performances here, the evening will be a rare treat. Craig Rutenberg accompanies on the piano. Monday, 8 PM, Martin Theatre, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 847-266-5100. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stewart O'shields.

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