Baritenor’s CD Traces Glittering Paths That Led Opera To Wagner

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American baritenor Michael Spyres began his career as a baritone and gradually moved his voice upward into tenor territory. (Photo by Warner Erato)

In The Shadows. Michael Spyres, baritenor; Julien Henric, tenor; Jeune Choeur de Paris; Les Talens Lyriques; Christophe Rousset. Erato  5419787982. 88 minutes.

DIGITAL REVIEW — Wagner would have had the world believe that his particular art sprang solely from his own creative soul, but as usual he bent facts to fit his personal mythology. Like all artists, he drew inspiration from his creative forefathers, who in the period between Mozart and the mid-19th century transformed opera dramatically, musically, and materially. In his latest recital disc, In The Shadows, the eternally curious baritenor Michael Spyres traces some of the Bayreuth bard’s antecedents, which not incidentally reflect his own performing history as he embarks on the Wagnerian repertoire.

Spyres began performing as a baritone, only gradually figuring out how to develop his upper range after a teacher suggested that he was probably a tenor. He moved to Europe at the age of 23 and joined the Arnold Schoenberg Choir while essentially teaching himself how to sing. Rossini became a mainstay of his repertoire: He made his 2009 La Scala debut in Il viaggio a Reims and became a regular at Rossini festivals in Pesaro and Wildbad. Subsequent appearances at New York’s Caramoor Festival in Ciro in Babilonia and Guillaume Tell cemented his U.S. reputation as an exciting Rossini tenor, as did his Amici e Rivali disc and tour with Lawrence Brownlee; the two tenors thrilled audiences with their tag-teamed high Cs. Spyres’ darker baritonal sound set him apart from his friendly rival’s brighter timbre and led him to seek repertoire that fit his voice’s comfort zone.

Beyond Rossini, Spyres’ hard-won high notes and dazzling coloratura have led him to the music of many lesser-known composers he discovered in the course of studying historical tenors whose repertoire seemed to fit his voice. Among them were the Frenchman Adolphe Nourrit, for whom Rossini, Meyerbeer, and Berlioz created many roles, and the Italian Andrea Nozzari, whose dark vocal quality and theatrical presence suited the interpretive demands of opera’s increasingly grandiose dramatic forms.

In the Shadows is Spyres’ third chronological survey recital focused on vocal techniques and qualities based on historical models and repertoire. After Baritenor, released in 2021, with its mix of baritone and tenor arias, 2022’s Contra-Tenor showcased virtuoso arias from the Baroque era, written for tenors who had to compete with the superstar operatic castrati of the 18th century. Now, as he takes his first steps into Wagner roles, In the Shadows documents his interest in the composers whose fame has faded over time but whose innovations helped to drive opera from Gluck’s polite symmetry to the Romantic era’s more flamboyant forms of expression.

The program is arranged chronologically: 12 operatic excerpts by 10 composers, written between 1807 and 1848, in French, German, or Italian. Many follow the format of instrumental introduction, accompanied recitative, and slow air, followed by a bravura fast section — we are still far from Wagner’s mature flowing marriage of words and music, but the heroic singer begins to go beyond symmetrical forms. Some of these selections are drawn from roles that have figured in Spyres’ eclectic stage repertoire; others fill in holes in our general understanding of how opera developed between Gluck and Wagner, bringing to life the music of composers best known to most operagoers as names etched on the marble walls of old theaters.

Étienne Méhul was a mainstay of French operatic life at the turn of the 19th century, though his fame was fading in France by the time of the premiere of Joseph (1807), which nonetheless was an international success. The music of his 32 staged works (operas or opéras comique), premiered in Paris between 1790 and 1822, exemplifies the post-Baroque reform style in the tradition of Gluck. The classical contours of “Vainement Pharaon” – “Champs paternels” is a look at the classical origins of 19th-century opera, which was rapidly beginning to evolve.

In his only opera, Fidelio (1814), Beethoven creates a distinct departure from the formal symmetry of the reform-opera composers. The extended introduction to Florestan’s entrance aria harkens back to the empfindsamer Stil of the late 18th century, with its intimate turn-on-a-dime emotional moments. But Florestan is a role that calls for a voice capable of heroic strength, looking forward to the kind of demands that Wagner later made on his leading men. Christophe Rousset and his ensemble, Les Talens Lyriques, respond superbly to the tenor’s expressive outbursts as the prisoner clings to hope despite his desperate situation.

In a scene from Rossini’s early Elisabetta regina d’Inghilterra (1815), the composer’s first opera for the thriving San Carlo theater in Naples, Spyres pulls out his crowd-pleasing technical tricks: rapid coloratura, register-spanning two-octave leaps, and power that intensifies Rossini’s sometimes mechanically manic energy.

Christophe Rousset, conductor of Les Talens Lyriques

One neglected composer beloved of singers with accomplished technique and dramatic flair is Meyerbeer. Mentor to Wagner (though the younger composer later attacked him, largely for his Jewishness), Meyerbeer’s grand scale pleased audiences and singers alike. Spyres’ Raoul in Les Huguenots at the Bard Festival in upstate New York brought him to the attention of East Coast opera lovers in 2009; his 2018 performance in L’Africaine with Frankfurt Opera will be released on Naxos in May. The prayer “Suona funerera” from Il crociato in Egitto (1824) brings to the disc a change in mood and sonority, with an introduction intriguingly scored for harp and trombone. The serene affect, delicate textures, and shift to a darker vocal timbre with choral accompaniment are a welcome contrast to the recording’s initial 25 minutes of dramatic intensity.

Daniel Auber wrote some 50 musical works for the stage, but La muette de Portici (1828) is historically noteworthy on several counts. The scenario features a title role played by a mute performer. It is widely considered the first grand opera, and the revolutionary scenario sparked the riots that led to the Belgian revolution of 1830, an event that impressed Wagner mightily. Masaniello (brother of the title’s Mute Girl) was the role that in 2012 earned Spyres an enthusiastic audience at Paris’ Opéra Comique, where he subsequently performed, among other operas, Fidelio in 2021. It’s a go-for-broke role, demanding a large voice that can still navigate florid writing, and the baritenor is persuasively heroic.

Ominous diminished chords launch Heinrich’s aria “Der Strom wälzt ruhig seine dunklen Wogen” from Spontini’s Agnes von Hohenstaufen (1829), in which a gentle lament broadens into a heroically scaled cry of despair. A lavishly ornamented version of Pollione’s first-act scena from Bellini’s Norma (1831) reminds us that we are still in the terrain of bel canto, where beautiful singing enhanced with vocal flexibility and inventiveness are prized. A two-part aria from Marschner’s Hans Heiling (1833) spins long lines that presage Wagner’s lyrical writing in his early operas.

Spyres’ program ends in the foothills of the Green Hill, so to speak; of the three Wagner operas represented, two early works were deemed unworthy of the canon by the master. Die Feen (1833), intense and chaotically melodramatic, was never performed during Wagner’s lifetime. It bears the unmistakable influence of Weber and Marschner, as well as Meyerbeer. By the time of Rienzi (1842), Wagner’s musical style had calmed down; the prayer “Allmächt’ger Vater, blick herab” dwells in the same musical universe as Lohengrin, with bel canto melody meeting breadth of musical line.

The disc ends with a taste of canonical Wagner with “Mein lieber Schwan,” Lohengrin’s farewell to his bride. Spyres sang his first Lohengrin at the Opéra National du Rhin in March to positive reviews. He continues on the Wagnerian track with his Bayreuth debut this summer as Siegmund in Die Walküre.

Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques provide colorful support throughout. It is refreshing to hear the tangy sonorities of the period wind and brass instruments with which these composers were familiar. Beyond timbre, however, Rousset also brings out the music’s rhetorical gestures to reinforce in detail the affects being expressed. Such highly detailed phrasing, rarely heard in grand-opera pit bands, presages Wagner’s measure-by-measure use of leitmotifs, making the orchestra an active commentator.

While this album is fascinating as documentation of Wagner’s antecedents and as a personal record of Spyres’ own road to Wagner, it isn’t a program that lulled me into listening straight through. Spyres possesses a handsome voice, combining both sweetness and metal in an appealing, manly quality. He has impressive breath control, exemplary diction in multiple languages, facility with passage work, and a range of vocal timbres. But Spyres is most of all a stage animal, able to put across his roles in the most outlandish of productions, and his winning stage presence doesn’t come through in a studio setting.

The historical sequence is illuminating but not really engaging: Most selections dwell in extreme emotional territory, with little variety or relief from the intensity, resulting in a sense of monotony exacerbated by uniform recording levels. While Spyres’ soft singing is lovely, even the gentler selections register at peak volume, so that the ensemble becomes tiring. Grand opera is replete with grand moments, but sustained intensity loses its impact without some relief. It’s an album to study rather than love, although there is pleasure in the listening.

The 44-page booklet includes thoughtful program notes by Spyres and translation in three languages.