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Michael Spyres (baritenor)
Male choir of L’Opéra national du Rhin
Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra/Marko Letonja
rec. 25-29 August and 14-15 October 2020, Salle Erasme, Palais de la musique et des congrès, Strasbourg
ERATO 9029515666 [84:30]

The baritenor voice is essentially that of a baritone who has almost the range of a conventional tenor while retaining some darkness of timbre and being rarely, if ever, required to sing above a top A or B-flat– essentially the range of a dramatic tenor or a Heldentenor, in fact. There is, however, a considerable grey area in that definition; the voice-type includes the specifically French category of baryton-Martin, which is decidedly lighter and more elegant in character; modern examples of that Fach are found in Debussy’s Pelléas or, to move into the Viennese tradition, the role of Count Danilo in Johann Strauss’ Die lustige Witwe, which may be sung by either a lyric baritone or tenor; indeed, Hermann Prey proved himself much more apt for that role than Karajan’s miscast tenor René Kollo. However, examples of roles of this type may be encountered in much earlier repertoire, as in Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607) and Mozart’s Idomeneo (1781). It is Rossini, however, who is credited with having further established the voice-type in his operas when he wished to distinguish between grander, nobler characters such as the baritenore Otello and the “young lover” type of role to be sung by a tenore di grazia of the kind we hear in Count Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia – but the role of the Barber himself could be said to be virtually that of a baritenor, in that it requires a considerable vocal upper extension.

Some singers have proved themselves to be perfectly capable of encompassing the demands of high baritone roles such as Ramiro in Ravel’s L'heure espagnole (whose aria is included in this recital) but have rightly resisted the pressure to retrain upwards as a tenor; for example, Robert Massard at the outset of his career angrily defied an impresario who was insisting he do just that – and Rossini’s Barber was the role he most frequently performed throughout his career.

Plenty of celebrated tenors began their careers as baritones and moved up: Giovanni Zenatello, Lauritz Melchior, Ramón Vinay (who reverted to baritone in the latter stages of his career), Ludwig Suthaus, James King, Set Svanholm and Carlo Bergonzi. Even that restricted sample suggests that the normal direction of such a voice would be towards becoming a Wagnerian Heldentenor but the obvious exception is that of Bergonzi whose destination was of course within the Italian tradition. Melchior sang a lot of Verdian roles before finding his true métier, whereas Plácido Domingo’s trajectory was the reverse of that - although I would not myself count his subsequent, late movement into the baritone Fach as being successful.

Spyres himself began his career as a baritone and, as with Bergonzi, what I had heard from him previous to this recording suggested that his transition into the tenor bracket was complete, as I could not detect anything in his vocal colouring to betray those origins. However, this new recording certainly provides evidence that he has retained considerable depth of tone, even if his tenor is not as darkly resonant and sonorous as that Melchior and Vinay and I would maintain that his excursions into baritone repertoire here are only intermittently convincing.

In the end, for me the validity of a singer’s claim to inhabit that special category depends upon his ability to negotiate the higher-lying, and even coloratura, demands of a baritenor role in ringing voice while still retaining the weight, depth and darkness required in its lower octave. It may also require the singer to follow the French original in the voice-type, Jean-Blaise Martin, and employ his falsetto range – something we may hear, for example, in the baritone role in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (also included here). I am, however, surprised by Spyres’ choice of Tonio’s famous aria from La fille du regiment, as with its nine high Cs I cannot see how it complements the baritenor theme and would surely lie outside Spyres’ range if he were indeed an authentic baritenor. Nonetheless, he makes a fine job of it and sings in excellent in French - considerably better than Pavarotti’s, even if hasn’t quite Luciano’s ping and elan.

The opening number, the coloratura showpiece “Fuor del mar” tells us that we are listening to a tenor of admirable agility and flexibility but also a rather constricted tone with nothing in the least baritonal about its tonal colouring. Spyres has a trill, executes divisions neatly and negotiates all the turns without flaw – but the low D before the concluding flourish has no great heft or resonance and even the top A with which it concludes is slightly pinched. The ensuing recitative before the Count’s aria certainly has some darkness about it but we are still listening to a tenor and again, the low D at the end of the phrase “un servo mio” is lost and the voice immediately sounds freer as it ascends. Having said that, the serenade from Don Giovanni works surprisingly well, being an essentially light and charming number.

The aria from Méhul’s Ariodant is a real rarity but the French text of both the recitativo introduction and the aria seems to bring out a squeezed quality in Spyres’ voice. The aria has much of Gluck about it but is rather more conventional in content. I make much the same observation about both the music and Spyres’ singing of the aria from La vestale, which is perhaps somewhat more familiar to opera buffs but still rarely encountered.

Central to the recital is its most famous aria: Figaro’s “Largo al factotum”, which is very entertainingly characterised and sung by Spyres and emerges as something of a tour de force, complete with a variety of assumed and amusing voices, even if I am slightly discombobulated by my ears telling me that it is here being sung by Almaviva instead of the Barber, an impression reinforced by Spyres using a tenorial falsetto G and even a top E during his La-la-la passages - and also a full-voiced top A. Of course, true baritones do this, too, but their tonal quality is different.

The aria from Rossini’s Otello begins strongly and Spyres sounds as if he has the right voice for this role but then the lack of resonance on the low A on “petto” is noticeable. It is only fair to observe, however, that Carreras, despite turning in a lovely performance in his youthful recording under Jesús López Cobos, evinced similar challenges – but then again, his climactic top notes are considerably more exciting than Spyres’. Having said that, Spyres delivers a surprisingly rich and sustained low E on “amor”, when he has the time to gird his loins, lower the larynx and give it some body. He then shows off with a full-voiced D sharp, no less – although it is debatable whether the result is pleasing. It is good that Erato took the trouble to employ a male chorus for both this track and the Adam aria, as their music is so rewarding.

Just as I am bemused by the inclusion of the Donizetti aria, I do not quite know why the showpiece from Adam’s Le postillon de Longjumeau has been included but I do know that I will not be exchanging for my preferred performance by another American tenor, John Aler in his complete recording from 1985; his version is livelier and includes both a thrilling top C and a concluding D-sharp. I do not find Spyres’ trilled top A and final top D to fall very pleasantly on the ear but it’s a testament to his prowess that he can execute them at all.

It must be said that both the introduction and the main body of di Luna’s aria from Il trovatore sound very convincing and I feel that we could be listening to one of the good second-rank baritones who have recorded it, such as Ugo Savarese, even if I do not find it preferable to accounts by true Verdi baritones such as Merrill or Bastianini. By contrast, although the aria from Thomas’ Hamlet has been a favourite recital album of lighter baritones such as Simon Keenlyside, here, to my ears, in Spyres’ rendering it sounds almost entirely tenorial and the superb Offenbach aria is surely no vehicle for any kind of baritenor, being essentially a Gallic showpiece for tenor – and again, as much as I enjoy the precision and authenticity of Spyres’ French here, his voice does not quite have the ring of the young Domingo (but whose French, like Pavarotti’s, was nowhere near as convincing).

There is nothing surprising of course, about the inclusion of the Lohengrin aria, which gains extra interest from being sung in the French version. Whether Spyres’ voice would be big enough to undertake such a role in the theatre is another question, but for the purposes of this recording he delivers a fine, steady rendering, even if the climaxes are a tad…well, anticlimactic – hardly surprising given that Spyres surely does not have any pretensions to being a Heldentenor?

As with the Verdi item, he sounds entirely authentic in the famous curtain-up aria from Pagliacci, darkening his timbre without going throaty and sustaining that intensity throughout. Indeed, if I were to cite the best example of how well Spyres impersonates a true baritone, this would be the track I point to; even the concluding A-flat and top G sound wholly baritonal.

The final offering is the famous lyrical aria from Die tote Stadt where Spyres displays his proficiency in the German language. This is surely a true tenor aria, so it is strange that he sounds off-form here, as if, perhaps, he has thought himself too profoundly into the baritone mode; the long lines sound scratchy and strained.

The recorded sound is exemplary, as is the conducting and orchestral accompaniment, distinguished by some transparent textures and fine solo contributions. The album could hardly be better filled at 84 minutes and provides quite a compendium of arias.

There is much very good singing in this recital but I remain only partially convinced by its premise, as there is an element of gimmickry about a voice venturing beyond its chosen tessitura to record a whole album of “intermediate” numbers. As testament to Spyres’ gifts, range and versatility, however, it is mightily impressive.

Ralph Moore

Previous reviews: Michael Cookson ~ Paul Corfield Godfrey

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Idomeneo, K. 366 (1780-81)
1.) act 2, Fuor del mar (Idomeneo) [5:59]
Le nozze di Figaro, K. 492 (1785–86)
2.) act 3, Hai gia vinto la causa? (Il Conte d'Almaviva) [4:59]
Don Giovanni, K. 527(1787)
3.) act 2: "Deh, vieni al la finestra [1:59]
Étienne-Nicholas MÉHUL (1763-1817)
Ariodant (1799)
4.) act 3: Oh, Dieux! Écoutez ma prière (Edgard) [4:21]
Gaspare SPONTINI (1774-1851)
La Vestale (1805)
5.) act 3: Qu’ai-je vu! Quels apprêts (Licinius) [3:14]
Giocchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia (1816)
6.) act 2: Largo al factotum (Figaro) [5:12]
Otello (1816)
7.) act 1: Ah si, per voi già sento - Premio maggior di questo - Amor, dirada il nembo (Otello, Iago, Chorus) [6:57]
Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856)
Le Postillon de Lonjumeau (1836)
8.) act 1: Mes amis, écoutez l'histoire (Chapelou, Chorus) [4:58]
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
La fille du régiment (1838-40)
9.) act 1: Ah! Mes amis, quel jour de fête! - Pour mon âme (Tonio, Chorus) [4:22]
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Il trovatore (1853)
10.) act 2: "Tutto è deserto" - "Il balen del suo sorriso" (Il Conte di Luna) [4:38]
Ambroise THOMAS (1811-1896)
Hamlet (1868)
11.) act 2: "C'est en croyant revoir" - "Oh, vin! Dissipe la tristesse" (Hamlet, Marcellus, Horatio, Chorus) [5:54]
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Les Contes d'Hoffmann (1880)
12.) act 1: "Va! pour Kleinzach" (Hoffmann, Nathanaël, Chorus) [5:23]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Lohengrin (1845-48),
13.) act 3: "Aux bords lointains" (Lohengrin’s narration) [6:13]
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)
Pagliacci (1892)
14.) prologue: "Si può? Signore! Signori!" (Tonio) [5:43]
Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948)
Die lustige Witwe (1905)
15.) act 1: "O Vaterland du machst bei Tag" - "Da geh ich zu Maxim" (Danilo) [2:45]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
L'heure espagnole, M. 52 (1907)
16.) "Voilà, ce que j'appelle une femme charmante" (Ramiro) [2:27]
Carl ORFF (1895-1982)
Carmina Burana (1936)
17.) pt. 4 “Cour d'amours”: Dies nox et omnia [2:29]
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Die tote Stadt, Op. 12 (1919)
18.) act 1: Lied. "Glück, das mir verblieb" (Marietta) [6:48]

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