Ryan Center singers rise to the occasion

Written By By ANDREW PATNER For Sun-Times Media Posted: 03/30/2014, 02:14pm

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Center has long been a top player among national professional training programs for young singers, helping to launch important careers and to create more and more well-rounded artists in a demanding field that requires both vocal and acting strengths, language ability and understanding of hundreds of years of varied repertoire and styles.

This just-completed season alone, current Ryan singers and Ryan alumni performed in 50 roles at Lyric and understudied 47. The closing production of Mozart’s “La clemenza di Tito” featured notable performances by graduates tenor Matthew Polenzani in the title role, soprano Amanda Majeski, mezzo Cecilia Hall and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, and current third-year soprano Emily Birsan.

Under the leadership of director Dan Novak and music director Craig Terry, the Ryan program has upped the ante on contemporary and English-language repertoire, developed a monthly radio recital series over WFMT-FM (98.7), engaged instructors from the Second City to work with singers on physicality and improvisation, added a slot for training piano accompaniment and coaching and generally become more streamlined and professional.

So it was little surprise that this year’s “Rising Stars in Concert” showcase concert had the most interesting program of works to date and ran like clockwork. With so much unusual repertoire, some singers had greater success in meeting the many challenges than others, but that’s the show business, whether in opera or popular entertainment. All singers performed with a full component of members of the Lyric Orchestra. and young American guest conductor Kelly Kuo seemed adept at making the constant shifting from one genre, era and set of techniques to another go smoothly.

Standouts in the two-hour concert at the Civic Opera House Saturday night were both excerpts from postwar works. Second-year Canadian soprano Tracy Cantin was spellbinding in Cressida’s recitative and aria from William Walton’s rarely presented 1954 “Troilus and Cressida,” a total performance vocally, physically, emotionally. The second half was anchored by second-year baritone Will Liverman in J. Robert Oppenheimer’s searing aria “Batter my heart” from John Adams “Doctor Atomic,” the first to take on this powerful setting of the John Donne sonnet since Gerald Finley debuted the role here in 2007. You could have heard a molecule drop, so compelling was Livermore’s singing and stage presence, so clear his enunciation and projection.

Even selections from more standard repertoire were unexpected. First-year baritone Richard Ollarsaba was both poignant and stirring in Figaro’s fourth act scene from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” as was first-year baritone Andrew Clark Evans in Zurga’s third act plaint from Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers.” Second-year mezzo J’nai Bridges impressed in a haunting “O ma lyre immortelle” from the early Gounod rarity “Sapho.” She and Livermore breathed immediacy into the great “Bess, you is my woman now” duet from Gershwin, Gershwin and Heyward’s “Porgy and Bess.” And Birsan grew into Anne Trulove’s extended first act scene from Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.”

Additional change came from the presence of a pianist in the current roster. Completing her first year with the Ryan, Maureen Zoltek offered the first movement, “Allegramente,” of Ravel’s jazz-inflected G Major Piano Concerto. With the orchestra in the pit and the (appropriately) dramatic Zoltek alone with the Steinway in the spotlight onstage, there was a bit of a variety show feel here, but what’s wrong with a good variety show?

Other participants, all game, some perhaps with voices less made for performing in very large opera houses such as the Civic, included first-year mezzo Julie Anne Miller (from Handel’s “Ariodante”), second-year tenor John Irvin (Lehar’s “The Land of Smiles”) and first-year soprano Laura Wilde (Gounod’s “Faust”). Additional pleasing ensembles held Wilde, Miller and Ollarsaba (Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte”), Birsan and Irvin (Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love”), Cantin and Evans (Massenet’s “Thais”). The full company (first-year tenor Adam Bonanni had a performance engagement) closed the evening with that swelling ode to American optimism, “The Promise of Living” from Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land.”

The concert was recorded for broadcast Sunday night from 7 to 9 on WFMT-FM (98.7) and wfmt.com.

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