Review: Two Tenors. Many, Many High Notes.
Fans of N.F.L. RedZone — the TV channel that whips around the country each Sunday during football season to show you, it promises, “every touchdown from every game” — will have felt a familiar sensation on Wednesday at the 92nd Street Y.
There, with the tenors Lawrence Brownlee and Michael Spyres belting out Rossini as if their lives depended on it, the audience got what Brownlee called from the stage the “barnstormers” of the bel canto repertory — and only the barnstormers. Out the window were the plots, the characters, the sets. What was left was an operatic RedZone: the highest stakes, the highest notes — we’re talking up to E flat or F over C — over and over, in dizzying profusion.
This was a lot of fun, particularly because Brownlee and Spyres are two of the finest, most sky-scraping bel canto tenors in the world today — though, while Brownlee has long been a Metropolitan Opera star, the astonishing Spyres has just occasionally appeared in New York.
Their rousing recent duo album, “Amici e Rivali,” from which the Y program was adapted, posits them as the inheritors of two distinct Rossinian traditions. Brownlee, his tone slender and silvery, sounds (we imagine) something like Giovanni David; Spyres, with a voice beefier and more baritonal, though no less agile, evokes Andrea Nozzari, with whom David often faced off onstage in the early 19th century. (Having multiple leading tenor roles in a single opera was commonplace with this composer.)
In concert as on the album, the main joys were the rarities, from the likes of the Crusades drama “Ricciardo e Zoraide” and the Tudor potboiler “Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra.” The duet “Donala a questo core” from “Ricciardo” was a thrilling combination of slow-burning lyrical verses and fiery shared coloratura.
I wish that the Y program had followed “Amici e Rivali” and included more from “Ricciardo” and less from “The Barber of Seville.” The concert’s long opening sequence from that chestnut did prove that Spyres could handle the baritone role of Figaro, and his famous “Largo al factotum,” with tongue-twisting, very-low-to-very-high aplomb; not for nothing is his new solo album called “Baritenor.”
But Brownlee wasn’t showed off best in Count Almaviva’s thanklessly glittering “Cessa di più resistere,” while a six-hand piano transcription of the “Barber” overture — with the evening’s game accompanist, Myra Huang, joined by Thomas Lausmann and Bryan Wagorn — seemed more fun for the players than the audience. (And other than to give these poor guys and their cords a rest, and to burden Huang still more, no one needed another overture transcription, of the one from “Guillaume Tell,” later on.)
The two singers each got a stand-alone number from Rossini’s delightful song repertory, with Spyres particularly melting and burnished in the passionate “L’Esule.” And a closing suite from “Otello” — very different than Verdi’s version — found both in rich, fluent voice in the arias “Che ascolto?” (Brownlee) and “Ah! sì, per voi gia sento” (Spyres) and the explosive duet “Ah! vieni, nel tuo sangue.”
I wish we had gotten a taste of the French Rossini, provided on the album through “Le Siège de Corinthe.” But that language did arrive in the form of an encore interloper by Donizetti: the unavoidable showpiece “Ah! mes amis” from “La Fille du Régiment,” with Brownlee and Spyres gleefully trading off the notorious, numerous high C’s.
Lawrence Brownlee and Michael Spyres
Performed on Wednesday at the 92nd Street Y, Manhattan.