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Many stellar voices in Lyric’s annual ‘Rising Stars in Concert’

Updated: April 15, 2013 10:35PM

There were no supernovas Saturday night at the annual, season-ending “Rising Stars in Concert” of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center. But that is not the point of this much-admired training program. As exciting as it has been to hear an Amber Wagner or a Quinn Kelsey before each started to appear widely on the world’s opera stages, it is the overall quality of the constellation of young singers that demonstrates the ongoing health of the art form.

Outgoing Ryan director Gianna Rolandi told the full Civic Opera House audience of Lyric subscribers and donors that she had assembled a program of “all my favorites.” And the concert went well beyond standard arias and showpieces to embrace duets, full scenes and even non-operatic material from Mahler and Vaughan Williams. Guest conductor Ward Stare led members of the Lyric Orchestra in lively accompaniment, easily shifting idiomatic gears from genre to genre for the 15 selections.

Tenor John Irvin and baritone Will Liverman, both completing their first year at the center, opened the evening at a high level essentially maintained throughout the night. Their offering of the famous duet from Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” matched or exceeded what one hears in many staged productions. Graduating second-year mezzo Cecelia Hall showed with Ariodante’s Act Two aria that young artists can be capable and effective with Handel as well as the 19th century core repertoire.

Graduating second-year soprano Kiri Deonarine opened the evening’s second half with a reminder that acting through singing is a key to success with Zerbinetta’s comic scene from “Ariadne auf Naxos” by Richard Strauss. And Liverman did the same with Figaro’s popular “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville,” which he managed to make sound fresh and his own.

Bernard Holcomb, a graduating second-year tenor, bravely took on both the Duke’s second act scene from Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and the Act One duet from Gounod’s “Faust” (opposite assured graduating bass-baritone David Govertsen). A tenor’s work is unending and never easy, but Holcomb has focus and a joyful energy.

Soprano Emily Birsan is staying on for a third year, and both of her lengthy excerpts from Verdi’s “La traviata” showed why Lyric sees potential for development here. She and graduating second-year baritone Joseph Lim, who had several supporting roles in the main Lyric season, showed mature presence and attentive blending in the Act Two duet between Violetta and the elder Germont, Birsin’s more exposed Act One scene and “Sempre libera” (with Irvin as the earnest offstage Alfredo) had you hoping that she will learn to open her voice more to match her other abilities.

Tracy Cantin, a returning first-year soprano, handled contrasting selections from Donizetti (“Anna Bolena”) and Puccini (Madama Butterfly’s end of the Flower Duet) well, even if this, the “Faust” and Lim’s brief aria from Tchaikovsky’s lesser-known “Iolanta” were odd choices for the evening. In contrast, assigning the “Urlicht” from Mahler’s song cycle “Das Knaben Wunderhorn” to returning first-year mezzo J’nai Bridges was an effective pairing of singer and work and added welcome variety. The full ensemble (sans the one graduating third-year, bass Evan Boyer, already singing in repertory at Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company) closed with a moving presentation of Vaughan Williams’s 1938 “Serenade to Music” which demonstrated the performers’ control and effectiveness as team players.

Rolandi was saluted as she steps down after 11 years at the center, the last seven as director, to spend more time traveling with her husband, Lyric music director Andrew Davis, who recently added an orchestral post in Melbourne, Australia, to his Chicago duties. Her focus on vocal training here and her lengthy real-world performance experience has enhanced the program greatly. Longtime Ryan manager Dan Novak succeeds her, veteran center coach Craig Terry takes up the new position of music director and the center will even welcome its first young piano fellow along with five new singers starting on Wacker Drive later this month.

Andrew Patner is critic at large at WFMT-FM (98.7).

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