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Michael Spyres (baritenor)
Chœur d'hommes de l’Opéra national du Rhin,
Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg/Marko Letonja
rec. August & October 2020, Salle Erasme, Palais de la musique et des congrès, Strasbourg
ERATO 9029515666 [84:30]

With his new album, BariTenor, American opera singer Michael Spyres displays the art of singing repertoire designated for both tenor and baritone voices. Spyres cites the example of Parisian baritenor Jean-Blaise Martin (1768–1837), who was ‘described at times as a deep-voiced dark tenor, or contrarily as a clear-voiced high baritone.’

Spanning three centuries, from Mozart’s Idomeneo to Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, the eighteen arias on the album come from repertoire usually shared between tenors and baritones. Spyres has certainly chosen a broad variety of arias by fifteen composers, ranging from those having an enduring popularity - in particular Mozart, with three arias, Wagner and Verdi - to those far less known such as Méhul and Spontini, and Adam - best known for his ballets.

A former student of the Vienna Conservatory, Spyres is making quite a name for himself with a succession of acclaimed performances at world famous opera houses including the New York Met, the Paris Opéra, the Bavarian State Opera, the Madrid Teatro Real, the Vienna State Opera, the Barcelona Liceu and London’s Covent Garden.

Unquestionably, the highlight of my 2019 Munich reporting trip was the timely revival of Offenbach’s masterpiece Les contes d’Hoffmann with Spyres, such a talented actor as well as singer, in the title role. This was a staging by the Bavarian State Opera, in the two hundredth anniversary year of Offenbach’s birth. In 2017 I reviewed Espoir, Spyres’ engaging solo album of nineteenth-century operatic arias on Opera Rara, rediscovering the art of Gilbert Duprez.

Spyres began his career as a baritone and his tenor voice was a decade in the making. His baritenor is described in the notes as a voice which ‘balances brilliant high notes with a robust lower register.’ Spyres suggests that the baritenor as ‘a forgotten vocal phenomenon’ which has been constantly overlooked during virtually the whole of opera’s lifespan. The exception was during the peak of the baroque era when the expertise of the baritenor equalled or even exceeded the prestige of the castrati. Spyres choice of predominantly Romantic era repertoire for baritenor in three languages suits me down to the ground. Although I savour the entire album, four arias especially stand out for me.

I relish Tonio’s dazzling showpiece aria for tenor with chorus Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête (Ah, my friends, what a day of celebration!) from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment. Tonio is a role tied strongly to tenor repertoire and the aria is renowned for its spectacular series of high ‘C's’. With a splendid technique providing a firm base, Spyres hits the target with his exhilarating high note leaps. Especially pleasing is how his sweetness at the top of his range reminds me of Pavarotti’s similarly sweet, trademark ringing tone.

Figaro’s grand entrance aria Largo al factotum from Rossini’s much loved opera buffa Il barbiere di Siviglia is justly famous. The role is firmly connected to the baritone repertoire. Spyres is a flamboyant, loquacious, larger-than-life Figaro who copes splendidly and with the utmost confidence with the demands of this tricky aria.

Spyres’ singing demonstrates his natural talent for expression and there is no shortage of humour when required. This is exemplified in his singing of the hapless Hoffmann’s Ballad of Kleinzach from Offenbach’s Les Contes d'Hoffmann, a favourite opera of mine.

Spyres without doubt always gives one hundred percent, so it comes as no surprise that there is some minor strain usually when his enthusiasm sometimes gets the better of him. From Mozart’s Idomeneo, Spyres has selected the traditional bravura aria Fuor del mar sung by Idomeneo, the king of Crete, whose description of his shipwreck in the raging sea reflects his own inner turmoil. Heroic coloratura is a vital component of this original version of the aria; Spyres’ endeavours feel somewhat stretched, which lessens my enjoyment.

One of the highlights of Wagner’s Lohengrin is the aria In fernem Land, in which Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal, reveals himself as a knight of the Holy Grail. Spyres has chosen Charles Nuitter’s French translation of Lohengrin, given in Paris in 1887. His singing is agreeably noble and has an air of mystery about it, but I find the Grail Narration tough to fully appreciate in this French guise rather than in the familiar German.

Spyres benefits from first-rate support from the Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg under its chief conductor Marko Letonja. The number of telling solo contributions from the players is impressive and the male chorus of the Opéra du Rhin sings to persuasive effect. Recording in the Salle Erasme, Palais de la musique et des congrès, Strasbourg, the engineering team has achieved pleasing sound quality. The detailed booklet essay on the baritenor written by Spyres is worth reading. I notice that the eighteen arias are listed largely in chronological order, and all the arias either intended for tenor or baritone are differentiated by colour. With such a fascinating choice of repertoire spanning three centuries, Michael Spyres is in compelling form here.

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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