One For The Books: Spyres’ BARITENOR

Review by: Robert Levine


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Shortly after I heard and reviewed Amici e Rivali, a CD devoted to duets by Rossini sung by tenors Michael Spyres and Lawrence Brownlee, I happened upon a video from a European opera house in which Spyres sings the role of Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio. A puzzle. High-flying, florid Rossini one day and the highly exclamatory Florestan the next? Well, it turns out that Spyres can handle both with more than grace and more than aplomb.

He studied first as a baritone and after a few years of daily, arduous work, became a tenor; but he preserved that baritonal color and strength. His remarkable upward reach–to at least D-natural on this CD–is the “new” part of his voice. The effect is staggering. One remains agape at, say, the ease with which he pops out the nine high Cs in Tonio’s aria from La fille du régiment and later sings the “Largo al factotum”, sounding like a fine, agile, burnished baritone, with enough characterization to make the aria’s stretta wonderfully colorful. And his reading of the Count di Luna’s “Il balen…” is as smooth as silk, with bright top notes and dark-hued low notes.

Unlike a famous tenor who realized that his top notes were going and opted to sing roles a third lower, albeit weakly and with the wrong vocal coloration, make no bones about it: Spyres is a baritone in baritone roles and a tenor in tenor roles. Or baritenor, if you can grasp the concept. And it is clear from much of this repertoire–18 arias (on a CD that lasts more than 84 minutes!)–that the voice range has always existed.

The recital opens with the finest version of Idomeneo’s “Fuor del mar” (the long version) I have ever heard: lengthy runs sung with accuracy and utterly steady tone; low notes that resound; and an ease at the top that asks for upward cadential additions. And a perfect trill. Don Giovanni’s “Deh vieni…” is smooth as silk. The Pagliacci prologue, a baritone showpiece as famous as Figaro’s in Il Barbiere, has all the drama and tragedy that it’s given by the great baritones of the past and present. The semi-ridiculous aria from Adam’s Le Postillon de Longjumeau, with its mighty and provocative high-D at the end, is precisely as light and playful as it should be.

An ear-opener is Mozart’s reworking of the Count’s aria from Figaro. Dramatic, nasty, and psychologically complex, this version has more than a dozen high-Gs–big, baritonal high-Gs–and if the descent to low-D is not stellar, it normally disappears when most baritones sing it. Hoffman’s “Kleinzach” scene also turns into a mini-opera, with its dark, narrative bridge and bright, weird refrain. For sheer weirdness, the baritone solo from Orff’s Carmina burana is sung in a ghostly falsetto.

Danilo’s aria (Léhar) is delicious–both tenors and baritones sing it–and Spyres’ sparkling, seductive reading is ideal. Perhaps for sheer vocal beauty I should point out Lohengrin’s “In fernem Land”, sung here (for some reason in French, but gorgeous) with an outpouring of “baritenorial” sound that bathes the listener. If there had been a touch more dynamic shading I’d place it with Björling’s late-career rendition. And pay heed to Marietta’s Lied from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. The part of Paul was written for a baritone turned tenor; here it sounds perfect.

If I’m gushing, forgive me. This is a treasure trove. Is all of the singing perfect? No, but it’s close–there’s a squeezed high note here and there (the world could do without the “Postillon” D), but it’s easy to forgive when you hear the spunky, glittering Drinking Song from Thomas’ Hamlet, with its trill and high B-flats, all encased in a velvety brown hue. And Spyres is excellent in all four languages.

A men’s chorus backs up Tonio in Fille, Hamlet, and Hoffmann. Marko Letonja leads the Strasbourg forces with the correct sense of occasion. Spyres is slated to sing the second act of Tristan next year in France. What could go wrong?

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Recording Details:

Album Title: BARITENOR

Arias by Mozart, Méhul, Spontini, Rossini, Adam, Donizetti, Verdi, Thomas, & Offenbach

  • Michael Spyres (tenor)
  • Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra, Marko Letonja

  • Erato - 0190295156664
  • CD

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