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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]

This title of this recital disc, BariTenor, is itself intriguing and challenging. There have of course been any number of tenors and baritones over the years who have set foot in each others’ territories, quite apart from those who have migrated from one range to another during the course of their careers – the movement of Plácido Domingo from tenor to baritone in recent years has a long-precedented history – and there have also been many composers who, quite apart from allowing their music to be transposed for singers with different ranges, have written operatic parts than can be essayed either by tenors or baritones – and this is a tradition that has an even longer history, going right back to the very beginning of opera with Monteverdi’s Orfeo where the title role has long been taken quite amicably by both tenors and high baritones. Michael Spyres himself, in an extensive four-page booklet essay (given here in English, French and German), outlines the background of such hybrids as the ‘bariton-martin’ so beloved of French composers including Debussy and Ravel, and the parts written by Mozart for such characters as Don Giovanni and the Count in The Marriage of Figaro which completely burst the bounds of the ‘bass’ voice as which they were so cavalierly designated in the score.

What is distinctive in this recital is not so much the exploration by Spyres of this territory on the brink between the tenor and baritone voice, as his combination of the material with such trenchantly tenorial writing as is to be found in the arias by Adam and Donzetti. These arias lie much more in the regions that might have been anticipated on the basis of Spyres’ recordings to date, with their emphasis on the demands of the French romantic repertoire such as Berlioz and Gounod. But Spyres began his career as a baritone, and it is clear from his handling of such roles as the Count in Il Trovatore or the Prologue in Pagliacci (the latter indeed once essayed on disc by Mario del Monaco!) that he can still sound highly convincing as a Verdian or indeed verismo singer in the lower range. Only occasionally, as in the higher passages of Rossini’s Barber of Seville (with its opportunities for extended characterisation) do we get the sense of a tenor reaching downwards (and we should similarly bear in mind that Domingo, long before he made his decisive shift to baritone, had already recorded Figaro for a complete DG set of the opera).

As we discovered with his superlative account of the strenuous title role in Gounod’s La nonne sanglante (see my review of the video last year), Spyres is not at all afraid of confronting his listeners with rare and unexpected material. Indeed one of the tracks here, the aria from Méhul’s Ariodant (Handelians, note the missing final e is not an error!), is claimed as a world première recording, and whets the appetite for more of the score which was a decided success when first heard in the empire of Napoleon I. We are hearing rather more these days of early Parisian grands opéras in the post-Revolutionary era, and the anticipations of later more full-bloodedly romantic styles such as Berlioz and Spontini are fascinating. We are also given an aria from Spontini’s La Vestale, another role which has long been undertaken by both tenors and baritones in complete recordings. And a further interesting novelty comes with the drinking song from Thomas’s Hamlet, a role invariably taken nowadays by baritones but which Spyres informs was originally written for tenor although it has never been heard in that form. The track listing indicates that the music comes in a “critical version” which might imply that some attempt has been made to restore Thomas’s original readings. The Count’s aria from The Marriage of Figaro similarly comes from an edited source, in this case Mozart’s own revision for a 1789/91 Vienna production where he added profuse bunches of high notes including no fewer than fourteen high Gs.

One peculiarity here is provided by Lohengrin’s Narration, sung in a French translation (and one which is not very satisfactory in the manner in which it persistently shifts key words in the German to other parts of the vocal phrase in French) which is described oddly as “original full orchestra French version “. We are not told what this might mean – surely all recordings of Wagner are delivered with full orchestration – and Spyres’ French lacks the sense of mystery required by Wagner’s poetry; it is all just a little too forthright and marginally too loud. The word “Taube” which most German tenors take the opportunity to float in head voice is just too forward, and the overall effect is not helped by the fact that the corresponding Gallic “colombe” makes its appearance earlier in the phrase. More interesting might have been the opportunity to hear some extracts from Tannhäuser in the French text which was originally employed for Wagner’s 1860 revision of the score.

Two other extracts from twentieth century German scores come towards the end of the recital. The leading male role in Lehár’s Merry Widow has long been a happy hunting-ground for tenors and baritones alike, and here Spyres supplies us with almost a character-tenor like pointing of the words which sounds startling unlike his more usual lyrical tone. The latter is however given full rein in the final track, an extract from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt which is welcome in its own right but seems an odd choice to conclude a recital designed to illustrate the ‘baritenor’ voice. I am not sure what edition of the music is employed here, but the soprano line of the opening part of which is effectively a duet gives way to a passage where the spoken dialogue of the original is transformed to recitative before the final section where the tenor line is retained while the soprano is simply omitted. In his booklet notes Spyres justifies this procedure by telling us that the original singer of the role also regularly sung the role of Eisenstein (another operetta role taken indifferently, albeit with transpositions, by tenors and baritones alike) – but so did most German tenors of that generation and indeed later.

Still, it makes a most welcome conclusion to a recital which is never less than fascinating and often much more than that. I have neglected to mention the splendid orchestral playing and the involved conducting of Marko Letonja, clearly realised in the atmospheric recording. But I would be remiss if, in thanking Michael Spyres for this superb recital, I did not sound a word of caution. I had already noted last year, when reviewing his video recording of La nonne sanglante, that there were occasional signs of strain appearing towards the end of a long and arduous evening in the theatre; and during a similarly live performance of Benvenuto Cellini from around the same period (review) there were similar hints of huskiness entering into his voice when he was reducing his tone during his lyrical final aria. There are no such concerns here, in a series of studio recordings undertaken over a couple of months. But I am aware of the difficulties some singers experience when switching roles from parts in the higher to the lower register even within the same range of pitches; and I am slightly alarmed that Spyres might be tempted to exploit his virtuosity and versatility in a manner that could lead to damage to his voice. He is still (in operatic terms) relatively young, in his early forties, and I would trust to his good sense and innate intelligence (clearly indicated in this booklet essay) to ensure that he handles his future development with a proper sense of caution. Given such care, I would look forward to his future participation in the exploration of the dramatic roles in French grands opéras in which he has already proved such a worthwhile discovery – Spontini’s Ferdinand Cortez, Le Seuer’s Ossian, Reyer’s Sigurd, for example – in complete and scholarly editions rather than the heavily truncated live versions with which we have had to be miserably contented for so long.

The presentation of this recital is excellent, as is the recording; the silences between tracks are perhaps undesirably short, but then given the exceptionally generous duration of the disc this can be forgiven. We are provided with complete texts and translations where appropriate into English, French and German (even for the dog-Latin of Carmina Burana).

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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

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