It seems rather a shame that Lyric Opera restricts admission to "Rising Stars in Concert," the company's showcase concerts by the young singers of its Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center professional development program, to donors and media members.
The talent on display at these annual events surely deserves wider and more frequent exposure, even given the various other opportunities the general public has to hear these would-be divas and divos in performance throughout the year.
That said, there was enough impressive singing on display Saturday night at the Civic Opera House to boost one's confidence in the progress of the returning Ryan Center members, along with solid contributions from the newcomers.
The nine singers (a 10th, tenor Adam Bonanni, did not appear because of a scheduling conflict) and Maureen Zoltek, the center's new pianist, were ably supported by the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Kelly Kuo, a most useful young conductor to have around on these occasions. The center's administrative team, headed by director Dan Novak and music director Craig Terry, with soprano Renee Fleming serving as advisor, can be proud of them all.
In general, the sopranos and mezzo-sopranos came off more successfully than their male counterparts.
Of the first-year apprentices, I was most taken with Laura Wilde, an Indiana University alumna who has sung supporting roles in Santa Fe, N.M., and St. Louis. She brought unforced charm and a peaches-and-creamy lyric soprano to the Jewel Song from Gounod's "Faust." The sound opened out to a full, steady top, and she has fine stage presence too. Wilde is definitely one to watch.
I have had eyes and ears on soprano Tracy Cantin and mezzo J'nai Bridges, both second-year apprentices, since they entered the program, and I'm pleased to find how well they are fulfilling their early promise. They were the breakout stars-to-be of Saturday's concert.
Cantin, a Canadian-born singer of poise and musicality, threw herself into an aria from Walton's "Troilus and Cressida" with such magnetic intensity as to win a roaring ovation. She also sang an alluring Thais opposite first-year baritone Anthony Clark Evans' ardent Athanael in a duet from Massenet's "Thais."
In the right role, Bridges can be a knockout. She most certainly was in Sapho's recitative and aria from the eponymous Gounod work, which she delivered with an earthy, alluring sound, impressive range and proud bearing, to match the vibrant Bess she sang later in the program opposite the Porgy of second-year baritone Will Liverman.
The latter singer handled his portion of the "Porgy and Bess" duet capably but appeared to be saving his vocal resources for the big, neo-Bachian monologue, "Batter my heart," from John Adams' "Doctor Atomic," which Lyric had produced in 2007. The baritone's searing account of this difficult aria brought down the house, and for good reason.
Emily Birsan is now in her third and final year with the Ryan ensemble and is going out into the professional world a seasoned young pro; witness how smoothly she wrapped her lovely lyric soprano around the tricky intervals and wide range of Anne Trulove's aria from Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress."
Also serving with distinction among the male contingent were Richard Ollarsaba, a bass-baritone in his first year; and John Irvin, a second-year tenor. Ollarsaba had what it takes to put a "face" to the title character of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," in Figaro's fourth-act recitative and aria.
Irvin's singing of Lehar's "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" (from "The Land of Smiles") was deficient in terms of both voice and style, but he did much better with his portion of a duet from Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore," partnered by a nicely coquettish Birsan.
Another first-year member, soprano Julie Anne Miller, sailed through a treacherously florid aria from Handel's "Ariodante" with easy coloratura, a shining sound and a penetrating forte, even though she needs to work on equalizing her vocal registers. Evans is another singer whose technique bears further refining, as was shown by a selection from Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers" in which his voice needed to open up more.
I can understand the Ryan Center's wishing to show off pianist Zoltek's capabilities as a soloist, but having her play the opening movement from Ravel's G major Piano Concerto was hardly the most effective means of doing that. The physical distance between her Steinway piano and the orchestra pit was enough of an obstacle, but the stage acoustics poked holes in her pianism, at least from my main-floor location.