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The Rising Stars Ensemble [Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]
16 May 2015

Rising Stars in Concert, Lyric Opera of Chicago

The spring concert of Rising Stars in Concert, sponsored by and featuring current members of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago, showcased a number of talents that will no doubt continue to grace the stages of the world’s operatic theaters.

Rising Stars in Concert, Lyric Opera of Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: The Rising Stars Ensemble [Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]


Excerpts performed by members of the Center had an emphasis on early nineteenth- and on twentieth-century repertoire. The Lyric Opera Orchestra was conducted by Michael Christie. Maureen Zoltek performed as the Ryan Opera Center pianist.

Among the first selections of the evening the aria “Ain’t it a pretty night” from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah was sung by soprano Laura Wilde. Ms. Wilde’s interpretation showed excellent technique at appropriate emphatic moments. In describing the stars as they look “right down,” she placed pure high pitches on the text as a means of communion with celestial bodies. Her character’s wistful yearning “to be one of them folks myself,” who are beyond the mountains, was equally touching and led into softer passages at the close. Also from the American canon Anthony Clark Evans performed Billy Bigelow’s soliloquy from Carousel. Mr. Evans shows fine vocal projection and caused his voice to move with the rhythm of the piece, in which Billy expresses his thoughts on the news that he will become a father. The final note on “or die!” was held for an exciting end to the aria. The second act aria for soprano from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles, “Me voilà seule … Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre,” was sung by Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi. In this piece, performed as a solo less often than Leïla’s aria from the first act, Ms. Mkhwanazi observed transitions skillfully and built interest at appropriate moments, including a ravishing final trill. Jesse Donner’s performance of the lead character’s Act II aria from Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, “Se all’impero, amici Dei,” showed not only an instinctive sense of arching line but also excellent diction throughout the aria. His use of appoggiatura as well as a polished melisma on the extended “altro cor” was impressively free of effort. The final selection in the first half of the evening was the duet for Lucrezia and Don Alfonso from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia sung by Tracy Cantin and Richard Ollarsaba. As Lucrezia begs mercy for Gennaro, both Ms. Cantin and Mr. Ollarsaba were swept up in the emotional confrontation of this exciting duet. Cantin’s languorous variations on “Clemenza,” as she sought a hearing were rebuffed by Ollarsaba’s equally assertive “No, non posso.” When accused by Alfonso of an inappropriate attachment to the youth, Cantin’s protestations resounded on “guiro,” here and in the remaining exchange with clearly focused top notes. The concerted passage was especially effective for both singers: Ollarsaba’s accusatory “tu sei,” varied over several lines, reached impressive heights while Cantin’s decoration on the name “Borgia” proved to be every bit a spirited vocal match.

The second half of the evening began with Ms. Zoltek playing the piano part in the Eclogue for Piano and Strings by Gerald Finzi. Following this piece, a series of bel canto highlights provided consistent interest throughout the balance of the program. Two of these featured the tenor Jonathan Johnson in performances that demonstrated considerable promise. With Ms. Mkhwanazi he sang Nemorino’s part in the duet “Caro elisir, sei mio!” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. Johnson has a marvelous sense of comic timing in a role to which he has clearly given considerable thought. His acting and facial expressions complemented a seamless line in the best tradition of lyrical vocalism. As Johnson’s Adina, Mkhwanazi was an impressive partner, her pointed notes and scales establishing a seductive charm for a lovelorn Nemorino. Johnson’s second offering was the florid aria for Ramiro, “Sie ritrovarla, io giuro,” from Act II of Rossini’s La cenerentola. This style of singing suits Johnson’s voice ideally, and his sense of Rossinian decoration was evident in an exciting performance. His overall approach is bright and open, top notes are secure and squarely on pitch. We can look forward to this singer assuming such a part as a featured artist in the future.

Similar reactions were garnered by Julie Miller in the excerpt “Se Romeo t’uccise un figlio … La tremenda ultrice spada” from Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi. Here the mezzo-soprano sang the Bellinian line as skillfully as the more rapid embellishments in the second part of the aria. Also by Bellini, the duet “Mira, o Norma” was performed by Laura Wilde and J’nai Bridges. Both women added sparks of color to the decorative continuity of this assured performance. Their voices remained distinctive yet contributed to a synthesis especially at those moments when they were interwoven by the vocal line.

The entire company of singers concluded a rewarding evening with the second act sextet, “Chi mi frena in tal momento?,” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. It was an appropriate collective tribute to an evening of such promising individual as well as ensemble singing.

Salvatore Calomino

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