For Ryan Center diva and divo wannabes, it's 'Lyric-palooza'

August 08, 2011

by John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

The Grant Park Orchestra went underground over the weekend when it presented its annual vocal showcase for members of Lyric Opera's professional artist development program, the Ryan Opera Center. A large, enthusiastic audience Friday at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance was treated to a classical alternative to Lollapalooza just across the way. Call it Lyric-palooza.

These programs of operatic scenes provide a handy means of charting the progress of returning Ryan singers as well as of spotting incoming talent on the way up. The 13 young participants were given a Walter Mitty-like shot at trying out operatic roles most of them are unlikely to sing anywhere else, at least in mainstage productions.

My only problem was the repertory they were asked to sing on this occasion. There is nothing better than Mozart and Rossini to develop vocal technique and musicianship in career-bound singers, but surely the musical selections could have been more varied from the previous year's. Perhaps this was deemed necessary to give principal conductor Carlos Kalmar and his orchestra music they could prepare on relatively little rehearsal.

One breakout star already has triumphed outside Chicago, and that is Rene Barbera, the splendid lyric tenor from Texas, now in his third year at the center, who took top honors in all three male categories at Placido Domingo's Operalia vocal competition last month in Moscow. Barbera's plangent, stylish and beautiful singing on Friday, as Ernesto in Act 2 of Donizetti's "Don Pasquale," amply justified his sweeping the prestigious global contest.

He was capably partnered by soprano Jennifer Jakob, a Ryan Center sophomore, whose Norina boasted attractive vocal and stage presence and confident comedic instincts. The German native is developing nicely in the Lyric program.

So, for that matter, is mezzo-soprano Emily Fons, also a second-year member, whose singing in the final act of Rossini's "La Cenerentola" (including the demanding showpiece, "Non piu mesta") revealed growth in every area.

Her vocal colorations ranged from smoky to shining; she commanded a melting pianissimo, and she tossed off the tricky coloratura runs and leaps with whistle-clean security. Her acting is coming along, but she still needs what many inexperienced young singers need: a better sense of their bodies and how to "place" them in a given dramatic situation. She'll be back at Lyric this fall as Nicklausse in Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann."

On the male side, tenor James Kryshak, another second-year Ryan singer, is every bit the equal of Fons as a bel canto stylist. He nailed Don Ramiro's aria from "Cenerentola" with remarkable agility, finesse, tonal beauty and a secure high extension.

Also worth mentioning is the bumper crop of low male voices on the Ryan roster, including third-year baritone Paul La Rosa, second-year bass Evan Boyer and second-year baritone Paul Scholten. La Rosa in particular seems headed for a solid career. Of the newcomers, one took notice of mezzo Cecelia Hall and bass-baritone David Govertsen. Other Ryan freshmen include baritone Joseph Lim and tenor Bernard Holcomb, although none of the bitty parts they sang Friday showed them to particular advantage.

Two first-year sopranos, Kiri Deonarine and Emily Birsan, sang with charm, wit and spirit as the rival prima donnas in Mozart's comic trifle, "The Impresario." Jack Zimmerman, of Lyric's media relations department, delivered his own linking verses amusingly. The outstanding virtue of this segment was its brevity.

There were some ragged entrances and occasional lapses of coordination between the orchestra and the singers, but, overall, the Grant Park Orchestra accompanied them sympathetically, delivering a crisp "Impresario" overture to begin the program. Which was not surprising, given the fact that 22 of the ensemble's approximately 88 regular musicians and substitutes also play in the Lyric Opera Orchestra during the winter season.