Friday, November 13, 2020

Tenors Brownlee and Spyres are “Friends” Forever

CD REVIEW: Lawrence Brownlee & Michael Spyres

Erato Label, New York


Celebrating Rossini is always a good idea. In their brand-new Erato CD, Amici e Rivali (“Friends and Rivals”), two of today’s shining stars in the tenor firmament, Michael Spyres and Lawrence Brownlee, exult in the bel canto master’s works. From the familiar comedy Il Barbiere di Siviglia to more serious offerings from the lesser known Otello, Armida, La donna del Lago, Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra, Le Siège de Corinthe, and the rarely performed Ricciardo e Zoraide, the two tenors take on the roles of sparring tenors who clearly get along musically and, by all accounts, personally as well.

In the recording, produced at Teatro Ristori in Verona, Brownlee and Spyres obtain assistance from two outstanding young singers, Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught and Spanish tenor Xabier Anduaga. Corrado Rovaris, Principal Conductor of I Virtuosi Italiani and a veteran of the Rossini Opera Festival in the composer’s birthplace of Pesaro, conducts the works on the program with great sensitivity, each one of which originated at the San Carlo opera house in Naples. The sequence of numbers on the program was created to suggest a sequential evolution depicting Rossini’s musical development.

Despite the contentious aspect of the CD’s title, the two artists have great admiration for each other’s abilities. They decided to collaborate after their first such effort at the Concertgebouw in 2018, to call attention to “this special time in the history of opera when two tenors would duel on stage for the hearts of the music-goers,” according to Spyres.

“Our voices complement each other because they have similar qualities to the voices that Rossini wrote for,” says Brownlee. Adds Spyres, “The duets that Rossini wrote for very different tenors precisely highlight our vocal strengths.”

That each of these singers motivates the other to aspire to the greatest possible vocal heights is evident in every one of the challenging excerpts, starting with the duet “All’ idea di quel metallo” from Act I of Barbiere. Within the first few measures, one hears a lushness of voice and tasteful, well-integrated ornamentation that would have brought smiles of approval from the composer. The baritenore aspect of Figaro’s share of the piece fits perfectly in Spyres’s full, supple voice (he actually started out as a baritone), and Brownlee’s leggiero tenor, a seamless combination of lyricism and brightness, is ideal for Almaviva’s part. His voice has not a speck of anything but perfection in its tone production and virtuosity. 

In the first number from Ricciardo e Zoraide, “S’ Ella mi è ognor fedele”, Brownlee displays his legendary legato from the very beginning; always a pleasure to listen to. A seemingly effortless High “C” anticipates the spectacular melismas in the cabaletta, creating an altogether satisfying experience. Everyone loves a Spanish tenor, and Anduaga shows that he can produce impressively in sound and technique, holding his own in the punishing but impressive “Qual sara mai la gioia”, while Spyres and Brownlee meld their sounds and techniques handsomely in “Donala a questo core” and anticipate the excitement of the much later William Tell in the heroic “Teco or Sara.”

Erraught’s splendid voice joins those of both tenors for “Nume! Se a’mei sospiri” and “Qual pena in me già” from La donna del lago. Their voices all are well suited to each other’s and blend consistently and equally. In this number the “Rivali” competitiveness between the two tenors—in full display, one high note after another—takes the breath away.

The melodious Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, perhaps the most Mozartean of the operas represented here, merits more frequent listening, and not only for the lively “Deh! Scusa i trasporti”. This duet, an equal opportunity piece for both tenors, shows that two voices singing in thirds can sound as one, in the best sense of the phrase.

The same holds true for “Non m'inganno: al mio rivale… Ah! vieni” from Otello. Here, Spyres and Anduaga conspire vengeance with rapid-fire coloratura and bravura and a furor that is positively Verdian, ending on an earth-shattering unison. “Che fiero punto è questo” again adds Erraught’s lovely vocal qualities to the mix, confirming the reasons for Rossini’s love for the coloratura mezzo-soprano fach which, after all, he invented.

Brownlee demonstrates that his awe-inspiring voice fits perfectly with the French language in “Grand Dieu, faut-il qu'un peuple” from Le Siège de Corinthe. Many singers have opined that French is the most difficult language to sing, but Brownlee’s performance here belies that view. The delicacy with which he negotiates the difficult high passages is astounding. “Cher Cléomène” commingles his voice with Erraught’s in a poignant duet that goes straight to the heart.

One can hardly imagine a more fitting finale for this spectacular display of vocal beauty and technique than Armida’s “In quale aspetto imbelle”. Spyres proves he can negotiate the entire range, from the extreme heights to the most profound low notes. Brownlee adds his crystal-clear tones to those of Spyres in a photo finish: a fit of vocal splendor and glory worthy of delight from any Rossini aficionado. In a word, breathtaking. If, as Spyres says of Rossini, “much of his writing for tenor set the boundaries for what the male voice could achieve,” then this sensational album is living proof. 


Photo credits: Shervin Lainez
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Monday, November 2, 2020

David Gately: Directing Opera in the Time of Covid

Courtesy of the Artist

INTERVIEW: David Gately
Seattle Opera, McCaw Hall

Opera aficionados who were disappointed not to see Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love on the mainstage, will be able to see the frolicking romantic comedy in Seattle Opera’s semi-staged online video stream, available to season ticket holders from November 13–December 4, 2020. Recorded on the McCaw Hall stage at Seattle Center Studios, the cast features Madison Leonard, Michael Adams, Patrick Carfizzi, and Tess Altiveros. Carlo Montanaro conducts pianists and musicians from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in a staging by David Gately designed especially for online streaming.

Seattle native Gately is a Seattle Opera veteran and has shared his unique talents over the last several decades with opera companies all over the US, Canada and in the UK and France.

Erica Miner: I liked your San Diego “Wild West” Don Pasquale a few years ago. 

David Gately: Yes, it was quite a few years ago [Laughs].

EM: You live in Seattle? 

DG: My home is here. I split my time between my teaching position at TCU, Texas Christian University, and Fort Worth Opera. I run the opera studio there and help integrate our opera program into their local opera scene, but I spend about half my year here in Seattle. It’s a bit of a jaunt to Texas, 4 hours even on a direct flight, but I can come and go pretty easily.

EM: Even these days?

DG: Not exactly. All our summer work was canceled, so I spent the entire summer at home. When I left Fort Worth in May, I drove all the way to Seattle, spent the whole summer here and then drove back in August. I enjoyed the drive. I did fly back here for this show. Flying is very different now, though I felt pretty safe on Delta. They really do an excellent job keeping people as safe as they can.

EM: I’m dying to know about this staging of SO’s Elixir of Love, designed especially for streaming. It must have been a real challenge, in this age of pandemic-driven performances, to mount such a production.

Philip Newton
DG: We have this huge list of health protocols that we have to follow, that come from the city, the state and from our union. They’re very stringent, even the rehearsal process itself. Only the people involved in the production are allowed to be around. Everyone else has to be on a Zoom meeting or watching on Zoom. People wore masks the entire rehearsal process until we actually got onstage. Some of the strictures were, you couldn’t come within 6 feet of anybody if you were not singing, but if you were singing right at someone it had to be a 20-foot distance away. If you were singing out the front, it wasn’t as important to be so far away. Props couldn’t be handed off. A prop had to be put in its place by a gloved prop person. So, if Dulcamara wants to give the bottle of elixir to Nemorino they can’t actually do it from hand to hand. It has to be set down, then sanitized and picked up again. It got quite complicated. However, because we were doing it for recording, we didn’t have to do it in order. We could, for instance, get to a certain point, stop, replace the prop, start rolling again. It looked like the same prop. We’d just do a cut and we’re right back in the action. We found some tricks that helped observe all of these protocols. Yet throughout, the audience won’t know we’re doing them. Initially the idea of this was some sort of concert version, but none of us were terribly interested in that. There’s a lot of that going around these days.

EM: As I’ve heard.

DG: We figured out a way to do a whole production—sets, lighting, costumes, props, everything—as a pretty regular production that is then captured and edited almost like a film—although we don’t have the time to do it like a film, since we only had about 3 days of recording. But it’s going to be edited and then streamed. That’s how it all came about.

EM: That sounds even wilder than the Wild West.

DG: [Laughs] The thing was, everybody was so excited to be working. In these times, nobody’s got a job. Everybody was just gung-ho to do whatever it was we had to do to ensure we could continue this project. Very rigid protocols. Everybody had to be Covid tested every 3 or 4 days. EM: Really? DG: The reason is, they found that if you are infected even 1 minute after your test, it still takes 3-4 days before you start shedding particles that can be infectious. If they test you every 3 days, you can really be on top of things if anybody became positive for Covid. We’re not really a bubble, where you only see the people you’re actually working with. Most of us are isolating ourselves, not doing anything outside except going home or to our hotel rooms, so we’re taking the process incredibly seriously. The protocols just to get into McCaw Hall are quite stringent. Everybody here is masked all the time unless they’re onstage performing. We all felt very safe about it because everyone took it so seriously.

Madison Leonard
Philip Newton

EM: With everything possible is being done, you come out of it with a performance that people can see and enjoy and appreciate, which these days is pretty rare.

DG: This one has its own special qualities, too. I was watching a rough cut yesterday. The cast is young, charming and fun, all wonderful actors. They don’t ever look like they’re performing onstage and just captured with a camera. They really look a bit like they’re in a movie. It’s really fun to watch. I think it’s going to be fun for people to see.

EM: How has it been to work with a very small cast and just a few musicians?

DG: There are 2 grand pianos, actually onstage right in the middle of the action, always playing, which gives it an almost Brechtian feel [Laughs]. Then there are 3 little specialty things that happen. At the beginning of Dulcamara’s aria, introduced with a trumpet fanfare, we have a trumpet player come onstage to be almost part of the action. Then Nemorino’s aria, the very famous Una furtiva lagrima, is accompanied by harp and bassoon, onstage with him. They’re surrounded by all this music making as they perform. But generally, it’s accompanied by 2 pianos.

Andrew Stenson; Philip Newton

EM: The musicians are pretty minimal in number.

DG: That’s correct. I think Christina (Scheppelmann, General Director) is trying to figure out how to involve the orchestra in the next production—Don Giovanni, which I’m not doing. But this is our first foray into this (format) and we want to be really careful, so the logical thing seemed to do it with 2 pianos. The Maestro (Carlo Montanaro) conducts the whole show, so it has a continuity and unity. These are very lively musicians, so the music is fun and exciting to listen to.

Carlo Montanaro
Philip Newton

EM: Sounds like Experimental Theatre.

DG: [Laughs.]

EM: With everything so new, being done for the first time, it must be a huge challenge to make it work. 

DG: It is. I can’t say this new Elixir is going to break new ground as far as concept goes. We’ve kept it pretty straightforward, updated it, set in the 50s, but no chorus, only the 5 principals. I set it in rural Italy because it lends itself to the naïveté of the rural folk. The experimentation and excitement are for the performers to be absolutely natural onstage, not like performing for the big house. They relate to each other as characters and tell the story in a slightly different way. If somebody is looking to see some off-the-wall, groundbreaking Elixir, this isn’t the one. We had our hands full just figuring out how we were going to do it in this manner. But in and of itself I think it’s innovative in a whole lot of different ways. 

Tess Altiveros, Andrew Stenson
Philip Newton

EM: I would call it groundbreaking in that this is your first foray, you’ve never done it this way before, and it’s setting a very good precedent, allowing people to perform and others to get their opera fix.

DG: That’s absolutely true. In reality we’re going to have to do this for a while longer. People are already canceling next year’s season, Broadway is not going to open now until, who knows, January 2022. People ask me when I think this is going to be over and we’ll go back to whatever normal is. My answer is whenever 2,000 people feel comfortable sitting in a room breathing each other’s air, then we’ll be able to go back to performing live. Until that happens, we’re going to have to find other ways. I agree that this is groundbreaking. I give Christina Scheppelmann credit for that. She was the one who conceived of doing this and said no, we’re not just going to do stage concert versions, we’re going to do a production. She was the person who spurred us all on to create this thing. Hopefully it will be a guide for other companies to follow suit.

EM: Brava to Christina. I interviewed her when she first came here and found her ingenious, creative and full of great ideas. I’m not surprised that she came up with this concept. She probably has lots of others. The times are forcing people to be really creative.

DG: She’s totally a force of nature, not just going to sit around and wait. She’ll keep this company relevant. She has so much energy, she’ll make things happen. I feel very encouraged.

Patrick Carfizzi
Philip Newton

EM: I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a long list of opera companies and educational institutions as in your CV, David. How have you managed to work with so many?

DG: Well, I’m old [Laughs]. I’ve been in the business for a long time. In the late 70s I was on staff with Houston Grand Opera, mostly as assistant director. I went out on my own around 1979, with little companies in the US, and started working my way up. I was fortunate to have a lot of people supporting me when I was getting started. Companies made me a regular, which helped me stay in the business and have a regular income. I started with a lot of comedy. Comedy is so much harder. You can only do so much and not get burned out. So, I’d say, yeah, I’ll do your Barber, but I really want to your Bohème too [Laughs]. And they would go, okay. Then I started to branch out into everything. Thanks to Darren Woods, of Fort Worth Opera, I’m now doing tons of new opera. I’ve even done 2 world premieres at TCU. I did Falling and the Rising, a joint production with the Army band, and last year I did Yeltsin in Texas, a comedy by Evan Mack. Doing new works is incredibly exciting for me. The education aspect sort of crept up on me. I actually ran the Brevard training program for young singers for 5 years. And I didn’t have to give up my freelance career. I’ve been busy [Laughs].

EM: You must be one of the few people who can combine academia with performing.

DG: It isn’t easy. I have an incredibly supportive group of administrators over me who really understand that doing outside projects helps the TCU program get better known. My contract as Professor of Professional Practice allows me to go out and practice professionally. It all works to keep me out there in the business.

EM: What was it like to direct a concert version of the opera Angels in America by Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös?

DG: He used Tony Kushner’s version of the play. His wife did the libretto, basically condensing the text so you could see both plays in one evening. Act 1 is the first part and Act 2 the second. I got a lot of mileage out of that. It got me to London with the BBC Orchestra and with the LA Philharmonic, fully staged concert versions. I was an interesting piece. I don’t think it was flawless, but it was exciting to work on that material, and to talk to Tony Kushner about the plays. He came to L.A. and just loved it. He said it was fun to see the play in such a stripped-down version on a concert stage without a lot of sex and stuff, that it made the characters even more vivid. It was really great to meet and talk to him because I have been such a fan for so many years. And he’s very generous of spirit. Some people are incredibly protective of their works. Edward Albee wouldn’t allow people to mess with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at all. Yet somebody called up Tony Kushner and said, “Do we make an opera of Angels in America?” And he said, “Yeah, cool, excellent!” [Laughs].

Madison Leonard
Philip Newton

EM: You also directed Matthew Peterson’s Voir Dire and Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls. Were these two 21st century works very different?

DG: Both amazing. The score that Jorge wrote was so gorgeous orchestrally. In Miami they took this piece so much to heart even though it was about a rather controversial gay writer who was very anti-Castro, moved to New York and was hated by the right wing because he came out. An incredibly interesting story, and beautifully done. Voir Dire was another amazing piece, taken from courtroom transcripts from a small court in Wisconsin and translated into this wild, riveting, almost circus-like evening. At times hysterically funny, at times devastating, about people who went through the legal system. It was a wonderful experience. I love working on new pieces. They’re the most exciting to me. Matthew is a wonderful writer. He’s an American who lives in Sweden.

EM: Thank you, David, for your insightful responses. I look forward to seeing what is sure to be a unique Elixir.

Philip Newton


Photo credits:

Courtesy of the Artist; Philip Newton
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]