Two Stellar Tenors Make Sparks Fly In Rossini Showcase

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Michael Spyres and Lawrence Brownlee share high and lower notes on their new Rossini album. (Photo by Shervin Lainez)

Rossini: Amici e Rivali. Arias and ensembles. Lawrence Brownlee and Michael Spyres, tenors, with Tara Erraught, mezzo-soprano, and Xabier Anduaga, tenor; I Virtuosi Italiani conducted by Corrado Rovaris,. Erato 0190295269470 (CD), 79:02 minutes.

DIGITAL REVIEW – Just in time for operatic holiday gift-giving comes not – or should one say “not just” – another appalling Christmas music crossover attempt but a truly distinguished and joyful collaboration between two of America’s (and indeed the world’s) most exciting tenors, Lawrence Brownlee and Michael Spyres. Erato’s new release, Amici e Rivali, has a generous 78 minutes of music from seven Rossini operas, from the most familiar (Il barbiere di Siviglia) to real rarities (Ricciardo e Zoraide and Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra).

The divo duo explore and honor the legacy of the legendary bel canto tenors for whom Rossini wrote some of his most taxing music, Giovanni David (1790-1864) and Andrea Nozzari (1776-1832). Both of those tenors created roles not only by Rossini but also in scores by Donizetti. Nozzari could further boast creating roles in operas by Giovanni Simone Mayr, Giovanni Pacini, and Saverio Mercadante – all major composers of the era – as well as Manuel García, the tenor who created Rossini’s Count Almaviva and the role of Norfolk in Elisabetta (with Nozzari singing Leicester, the romantic role.

David and Nozzari were amicable rivals; hence the recording’s title. Their contrasting instruments and abilities – David with a huge range and extraordinary agility, Nozzari known as a “baritenor,” with unusual richness in his lower register wedded to dramatic and declamatory commitment. These attributes are echoed in the bravura artistry of Brownlee and Spyres.

In the years 1815-22, Rossini crafted nine operas for three theaters in Naples run by the powerful impresario Domenico Barbaja (1777-1841), whose mistress, mezzo-soprano Isabella Colbran (1785-1845), eventually became Rossini’s muse and first wife. David appeared in six of them and Nozzari nine. A recording project exploring this legacy would have been unthinkable 50 years ago, when tenors were invariably the weakest cast elements in any of Rossini’s Neapolitan operas that won revival.

Things began to change around 1980 with Rockwell Blake and Francisco Araiza. Soon, Raúl Gimenez, Chris Merritt, Bruce Ford, and Gregory Kunde swelled their ranks, and the Pesaro Festival could program practically anything. In Juan Diego Flórez the field won its first recording superstar, and with Brownlee, Spyres, Javier Camarena, Barry Banks, Maxim Mironov, Michele Angelini, and others in the field, this particular vocal fach is unexpectedly far deeper of bench than previously taken-for-granted categories like dramatic mezzo-sopranos and Verdi baritones.

The disc starts with the two-part Figaro-Almaviva duet “All’idea di quel metallo,” in which the barber outlines his plan for furthering the Count’s romantic plans and describes his own home base. To me it’s one of the great things in Rossini’s score but rarely excerpted or used at galas, perhaps because to perform it complete with repeats has tested many of the parts’ most famous exponents. Until now, one of the few satisfying recorded performances is on Naxos’ 1997 “sleeper” set with Roberto Servile and the splendid Ramón Vargas. But Spyres (sounding utterly at home in the baritone range) and Brownlee (for whom Almaviva opened so many professional doors, including to La Scala in 2002 and the Met in 2007) launch into the piece like a house afire. Both manage the quality sometimes ascribed to Nicolai Gedda, “a smile in the tone,” making their interaction genuinely pointed and droll as well as technically flawless.

Brownlee moves on to a relatively lyrical if rangy piece from 1818’s Ricciardo e Zoraide, the aria “Qual sarà mai la gioia.” The fantastically ornate cabaletta, “Qual sarà mai la gioia,” with leaps and runs he executes with aplomb, is fundamentally a solo, with a secondary character (Ernesto) given occasional, much simpler interventions. The second Ricciardo e Zoraide selection is an actual duet, “Donata a questo core,” with Spyres unleashing his first tenorizing on the disc. He’s quite spectacular, showing a confident lower register and superb trill right off the bat. His timbre contrasts strikingly with the buzzier, higher-flying Brownlee as Ricciardo, but their ease in limning close harmonies of the kind we associate with Semiramide and Arcace (and, later, similar female duos by Bellini and Donizetti) is amazing.

Thinking in pre-download, pre-sampling terms, I might have begun the disc with this number, which shows the high stakes undertaken and commensurately high achievement. The trio “Qual pena in me già desta” from the Walter Scott-fueled La donna del lago (1819) furnishes the two tenor stars to fire off high Cs in quick, competitive succession. A certain segment of listeners will head for this athletic earworm straight off; they know who they are.

Otello (1816) is one of those meritorious works eclipsed by a later treatment, that of Verdi. (Rossini did the same to Paisiello’s Barbiere di Siviglia.) Where Boito’s brilliant 1887 version jettisons Shakespeare’s Venetian scenes completely, Francesco Berio di Salsa’s libretto for Rossini never leaves la Serenissima; no one ever gets to Cyprus. The final act has some wrenching writing for Desdemona, but though the rest is proficient, it’s hard not to hear it through the lens of Verdi’s opera and find Rossini’s formulaic. For example, the jaunty stretta of “Che fiero punto e questo,” the (nominally) impassioned trio for Otello, Desdemona, and Iago, very impressively recorded here, would sound right at home in Cenerentola or Le comte Ory. In this work, Rodrigo (a sketchy comprimario in the Verdi) is the passionate, devoted lover figure. The part is one to which Brownlee has long aspired, and one hopes he and Spyres can headline a production.

Corrado Rovaris conducts I Virtuosi Italiani on the Rossini disc.

Rossini wrote Maometto II  in 1820 and revised it two years later. In his subsequent Paris period, he re-crafted it as Le siège de Corinthe (1826), reassigning the juvenile hero role from travesti mezzo-soprano to tenor to suit the stellar Adolphe Nourrit, the future creator of Comte Ory and Arnold in Guillaume Tell as well as iconic roles by Auber, Halévy, and Meyerbeer. Though the French selections we hear here are not strictly speaking products of Rossini’s Neapolitan sojourn, they’re for me among the highlights of the issue. Those who know only the debased, now discredited hybrid edition Thomas Schippers fashioned for La Scala in 1969 – it, and Beverly Sills, arrived at the Met six years later – may little suspect how fine a piece it is.

Here we get Brownlee as the ardent Néoclès tossing off  an aria with astounding bravura, followed by “Céleste providence,” a haunting trio of intergenerational reconciliation and resolve in the face of hostile fate. The scoring and melody strikingly anticipate the composer’s uniquely influential final masterwork, Guillaume Tell. Both star tenors’ inflection of Italian goes considerably beyond the “solidly prepared” norm of American singers, and Brownlee has mastered French as well as he has every language to which he turns his attention. Spyres’ command of expressively sung French is simply miraculous, one reason for his immense popularity in Paris and Strasbourg.

The tenors find a splendid collaborator in Corrado Rovaris, music director of Opera Philadelphia, for which Brownlee serves as artistic adviser. At OP alone, Rovaris has led Italiana (twice, with Flórez and Brownlee in two different productions) Barbiere, and Cenerentola, which marked Brownlee’s 2006 OP debut. His most impressive bel canto achievement there, though, was 2017’s splendid Tancredi – an important opera the Met has never done – with Stephanie Blythe, Brenda Rae, and Angelini. Rovaris also leads the Veronese ensemble I Virtuosi Italiani, which plays impressively here. Starting in the late 1990s with Il signor Bruschino and Otello, Covaris has conducted at Pesaro’s Rossini Festival and knows his way around the composer’s challenging, high-tension (if sometimes formulaic) idiom.

One could write a history of “supporting artists” on star-driven opera releases. Not all the pieces singers want to record are completely solo, particularly not in bel canto repertory, though even numbers like Verdi’s Willow Song for Desdemona and Turandot’s “In questa reggia” have singing interlocutors. Back in the early 78 single days, recording companies often employed reliable, versatile “house vocalists” to back up the stars. For example, superstar tenor John McCormack sang the Aida Tomb Scene and Bizet’s José-Micaëla duet with RCA stalwart Lucy Isabelle Marsh, who had no stage career but a beautiful technique (if limited linguistic finesse).

When aria recitals became a rite of passage in the LP era, sometimes companies would call on comprimarios local to the recording site (explaining, say, alto Sonja Draksler sounding ready for the Bruckner Te Deum when singing Alisa in Beverly Sills’ Lucia entrance scene) and sometimes other potentially major artists who’d been put on contract (hence the never-quite-first-rank Daniele Barioni taking Calaf’s lines on Leontyne Price’s Prima Donna Volume 4 album).

In the last 15 years or so, especially as digital release has become increasingly the consumer mode of choice, companies often have taken a leaf from pop releases, inviting a collaboration with either a more established recording star (witness David Daniels joining Stephanie Blythe for “Son nata a lagrimar” on her initial Bach-Handel release on Erato) or an up-and-coming one. A particularly successful example of the second mode was (again) Erato providing those hearing Joyce DiDonato’s impressive Rossini CD Colbran: The Muse with Brownlee as a luxury-cast Gondeliere in Desdemona’s sublime final scene.

This time around, with Brownlee and Spyres getting star billing, the company filled out the trios and scenes with two younger artists gaining prominence, Irish mezzosoprano Tara Erraught and Spanish tenor Xabier Anduaga. Erraught usually handles lyric mezzo-soprano roles like Nicklausse and Hänsel (both of which brought her to the Met in 2017-18). She sings Rossini’s Rosina, and Angelina in Cenerentola marked her U.S. debut in Washington in 2015 and was meant to join her Met gallery this past March. Here, however, she tackles the music the composer allotted to Colbran in the more expansive serious works.

Erraught emerges a good “team player” but lacks the writing’s full dimension. Her instrument sounds well-trained, nicely rounded, and proficient enough in roulades, but somewhat limited on top. There’s also – by comparison with the instantly recognizable timbres of the headliners – a lack of individuality and tonal warmth. Erraught sounds more like a highly accomplished “seconda donna” than the star-quality vocalist implicit in Rossini’s writing for Colbran.

Xabier Anduaga is the third tenor on Amici e Rivali.

Anduaga is at an earlier career stage, but his technically accomplished and idiomatic work here shows much promise. He sings the “baritenor” music Rossini alloted to Giuseppe Ciccimarra (1790-1836): more a secondary singer than a star, but clearly a knowledgeable vocalist. Among Ciccimarra’s students were Josef Tichatschek, Wagner’s first Rienzi and Tannhäuser, and Sophie Löwe, for whom Verdi wrote the soprano leads in Ernani and Attila.

In this compilation, Anduaga takes on Ernesto in support of Brownlee, Iago opposite Spyres’ Otello, and Carlo in Armida in the high-voltage trio that brings the disc to a stirring conclusion. Brownlee, who essayed Rinaldo in the Met’s 2010 staging, here sings Ubaldo, who, with fellow knight Carlo, rescues the besotted hero Rinaldo (Spyres). Armida has some pretty routine stretches, too, but you won’t want to miss the high Ds the three tenors toss off in succession here. Spyres in particular manages some astonishing vocal feats.

Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in New York City. He regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt, and many other venues and has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals.