Ryan Center singers sparkle in Grant Park program

August 06, 2011

by Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times

Over the years, the giant Lyric Opera of Chicago and the small-budget but hugely attended Grant Park Music Festival have had an up-and-down relationship. Depending upon who was in charge of various constituent parts of the two groups, joint programs could be thrilling, deadly dull or non-existent. The two motherships parted a few years ago, and Lyric now presents an annual “Stars of Lyric Opera” concert with its own orchestra at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion (this year set for Sept. 10).

Friday night at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park, though, it sure looked and sounded as if everyone has kissed, made up and was showing off their best artistic abilities when ensemble members of Lyric’s professional training program, the Ryan Opera Center, joined with the Grant Park Orchestra and its principal conductor and artistic director Carlos Kalmar for a well-designed evening of seriously accomplished delightful comic opera acts from Mozart, Donizetti and Rossini.

The program, which repeats at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, even had Lyric’s public and customer relations star (and valued author and raconteur) Jack Zimmerman as narrator, offering hilarious and original deadpan verse to accompany the Mozart rarity “The Impresario” and succinct but equally uproarious summaries for the two acts from Italian opera entries.

Thirteen Ryan members, ranging from six first-year singers through five second-year returnees to two third-year “seniors,” offered remarkable balance and control in works heavy on trilling, patter, ensemble and near-infinite finales. The mistaken identities, comic asides and stage timing of Act 2 of Donizetti’s 1843 “Don Pasquale” and Rossini’s 1817 “La Cenerentola” (“Cinderella”) were catnip for these young singers — each of whom made you want to hear her or him again and soon. All will appear, usually in small roles, in Lyric productions in the 2011-12 season. But more than once, a cover or understudy from the center has gone on for the billed performer, and a star has been born at the Civic Opera House.

Rene Barbera, a third-year tenor from San Antonio, Texas, is already well on his way to wider attention; his natural high tenor brought him three top awards, best male singer, best “zarzuela” interpreter and audience favorite in Placido Domingo’s annual Operalia competition, held last month in St. Petersburg, Russia. A natural bel canto tenor, he made “Povero Ernesto!” his own to open the Donizetti.

Korean-born first-year baritone Joseph Lim, a 2011 Grand Finals winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, was given tiny character parts in the Mozart and Donizetti, but handled them as if a veteran.

The program, which repeats at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, even had Lyric’s public and customer relations star (and valued author and raconteur) Jack Zimmerman as narrator, offering hilarious and original deadpan verse to accompany the Mozart rarity “The Impresario” and succinct but equally uproarious summaries for the two acts from Italian opera entries.

Thirteen Ryan members, ranging from six first-year singers through five second-year returnees to two third-year “seniors,” offered remarkable balance and control in works heavy on trilling, patter, ensemble and near-infinite finales. The mistaken identities, comic asides and stage timing of Act 2 of Donizetti’s 1843 “Don Pasquale” and Rossini’s 1817 “La Cenerentola” (“Cinderella”) were catnip for these young singers — each of whom made you want to hear her or him again and soon. All will appear, usually in small roles, in Lyric productions in the 2011-12 season. But more than once, a cover or understudy from the center has gone on for the billed performer, and a star has been born at the Civic Opera House.

Rene Barbera, a third-year tenor from San Antonio, Texas, is already well on his way to wider attention; his natural high tenor brought him three top awards, best male singer, best “zarzuela” interpreter and audience favorite in Placido Domingo’s annual Operalia competition, held last month in St. Petersburg, Russia. A natural bel canto tenor, he made “Povero Ernesto!” his own to open the Donizetti.

Korean-born first-year baritone Joseph Lim, a 2011 Grand Finals winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, was given tiny character parts in the Mozart and Donizetti, but handled them as if a veteran.