25 August 2016

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | August 2016: Vincenzo Bellini & Gaetano Donizetti — ALLEGRO IO SON (Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; Delos DE 3517)

IN REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini & Gaetano Donizetti - ALLEGRO IO SON (Delos DE 3517)VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835) and GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Allegro io son – Bel canto AriasLawrence Brownlee, tenor; Viktorija Miškūnaitė, soprano (Puritani selections); Liudas Mikalauskas, bass (Puritani and Fille du régiment selections); Andrius Apšega, baritone (Puritani selection); Kaunas State Choir; Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra; Constantine Orbelian, conductor [Recorded at Kaunas Philharmonic, Kaunas, Lithuania, in April 2016; Delos DE 3517; 1 CD, 62:15; Available from Delos, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]

The late thespian Sir Alec Guinness once suggested that a superb tenor voice should sound like ‘a silver trumpet muffled in silk.’ These are very pretty words, to be sure, and a legitimate observation by the owner of one of the great voices of the spoken theatre, but what does the description truly mean? Without resorting to proposing that a listener ponder how a silver trumpet muffled in silk might actually sound, how is Guinness’s assessment translated into discernible qualities that the ear unbothered by poetic conceits can perceive? Supported with ideal grace and enthusiasm by the expertly-scaled singing and playing of the Kaunas State Choir and Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra and the alert, stylish conducting of Constantine Orbelian, tenor Lawrence Brownlee provides with the eleven selections on Allegro io son a definitive—and, in the context of Guinness’s lovely but enigmatic observation, revealingly defining—exhibition of the silken trumpeting of a superb, polished-silver tenor voice. Even amidst the musical brilliance of Allegro io son, which is all the more enjoyable for being so vividly recorded and handsomely presented by Delos, it is the undeviating directness of Brownlee’s approach to this demanding music that distinguishes this disc. Sincerity is not a trait that is often encountered in opera, on or off the stage, but honest, unforced connection with the music and the characters that it portrays is the heart of Allegro io son. Is an uncomplicated joy in singing perhaps the silk with which Guinness stated that the finest voices are adorned?

One of America’s most acclaimed singers, Brownlee is an artist who has legitimately earned every honor bestowed upon him, not the least among which is the prestigious Richard Tucker Award. Lauded for interpretations of rôles ranging from Rossini’s dashing leading men to the legendary jazz saxophonist and composer title character in Daniel Schnyder’s Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, premièred by Opera Philadelphia in 2015, Brownlee is a performer whose wholly organic operatic portrayals are allied with the utmost technical refinement. Whereas some singers develop idiosyncrasies as their careers progress, Brownlee has thus far honed his skills without sacrificing any of the visceral immediacy of his singing, each new experience broadening his view but never distorting his focus. The tenor’s renown owes much to his breathtaking flair for executing Rossinian fiorature, but the expansive melodic lines of Vincenzo Bellini and the dramatic bel canto of Gaetano Donizetti are equally apt outlets for Brownlee’s prodigious gifts. Avoiding the forcing that compromises many singers’ endeavors in this repertory, Brownlee’s singing on Allegro io son possesses an evenness spanning the full range that, though perhaps easier to control in the recording studio than in the theatre, cannot be faked. As with the sincerity of his expression, the authenticity of his vocalism is remarkable, especially as it is employed in the performances on this disc. Brownlee practices what many pedagogues and fellow tenors can only preach.

It is fitting that the Bellini selections on Allegro io son are drawn from the composer’s final opera, I puritani, in performances of which Brownlee has proved in recent seasons to be a stakes-raising exponent of the rôle of Arturo, created in the opera’s 1835 première by Giovanni Battista Rubini. The fearsome tessitura and stratospheric range of the part lift it beyond the reach of most modern tenors even with downward transpositions and omissions, but Brownlee’s performances of Arturo for Washington Concert Opera, The Metropolitan Opera, and other companies have been notable not only for the appearance of ease with which he sings the music, evidence of his award-worthy acting skills [anyone lulled by his singing into doubting the difficulty of Brownlee’s repertory is encouraged to sing along—at pitch—with any of the selections on this disc to dispel these illusions], but also his astounding projection of the part’s infamous F5. Brownlee here sings Arturo’s de facto entrance aria—not so designated by Bellini in the score—from Act One, ‘A te, o cara, amor talora.’ Complemented by capable, often lovely deliveries of Elvira’s, Giorgio’s, and Valton’s lines by soprano Viktorija Miškūnaitė, baritone Andrius Apšega, and bass Liudas Mikalauskas, he sculpts the arching melody with superb breath control and rises ecstatically to a bright, steady top C♯. Then, rather than awing with an account of ‘Credeasi, misera’ with the aforementioned F5, he prefers beguiling with the more subtle charms of ‘Son salvo, alfin son salvo.’ Miškūnaitė sings Elvira’s offstage passage ‘A una fronte afflitto e solo’ hauntingly, and Brownlee answers with vocalism of impeccable poise and lustrous tone. Astounding is the panache with which he manages to sound genuinely heroic whilst also placing vowels squarely on the breath as true bel canto demands.

This disc takes its title from Beppe’s popular aria from the Italian version of Donizetti’s otherwise little-remembered one-act gem Rita, ‘Allegro io son, come un fringuel.’ The rapid-fire triplets with which the composer conjured the opera’s Spanish setting hold no terrors for Brownlee, and Donizetti’s trills are dutifully attempted, the second more successfully than the first. Completely successful are Brownlee’s ascents to the top Bs and C♯. From Act Four of La favorite come Fernand’s recitative ‘La maîtresse du roi!’ and aria ‘Ange si pur, que dans un songe.’ The tenor’s French diction is exemplary, slightly more natural, in fact, than his excellent command of Italian, and the anguish expressed by the character as he reflects on his idealized passion having been shattered simmers in Brownlee’s unexaggerated singing. The beautifully-sustained top C is integrated into the line rather than disrupting it. Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal is one of Donizetti’s most daunting and therefore least-performed works, and the title character’s sprawling aria that ends the opera’s second act, ‘Seul sur la terre,’ tests Brownlee’s abilities. Reminiscent of the music that prefaces the heroine’s first scene in Lucia di Lammermoor, evocative passages for harp—beautifully played by the Kaunas harpist—introduce an exquisite principal theme that straddles the tenor’s passaggio. Brownlee conquers the aria unflinchingly, resourcefully exploiting his tones’ glistening patina rather than pushing the voice. The trio of top Cs and climactic top D♭ ring excitingly, costing Brownlee nothing in terms of toil that he is not eminently capable of paying. Luciano Pavarotti famously likened the tenor voice to a bank account into which God, nature, or whatever force to which one attributes vocal endowments deposits a finite number of top Cs. Singers’ upper registers are often casualties of the natural aging of voices, but Brownlee is the exceptionally rare singer whose technique seems adept at regularly replenishing his cache of high notes.

There have been few singers as uniquely qualified to sing Ernesto in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale as Brownlee since the days of Tito Schipa and Cesare Valletti. Not even Alfredo Kraus sang Ernesto’s music so winsomely, and Brownlee has the advantage in comparison with the most noteworthy of his fellow Ernestos among today’s tenors of having a warmer, more appealingly youthful timbre. On this disc, Brownlee makes Ernesto’s Act Two recitative ‘Povero Ernesto! dallo zio cacciato, da tutti abbandonato,’ music that can too easily sound inane, truly touching. Matching the artful phrasing of the obbligato trumpet, Brownlee voices the larghetto aria ‘Cercherò lontana terra dove gemen sconosciuto’ ravishingly, the disinherited lad’s despair for once eliciting sympathy rather than derision. The moderato cabaletta ‘E se fia che ad altro oggetto’ receives from this Ernesto a rollicking reading bolstered by a newly-tapped vein of confidence: no note ever recorded exudes confidence more exhilaratingly than the interpolated top D♭ with which Brownlee ends the cabaletta. Aided by the chorus and the atmospheric sounds of the guitar and tambourine, his account of Ernesto’s Act Three serenade ‘Com'è gentil la notte a mezzo april’ is no less alluring. It may be an element of a ruse in its proper context in Don Pasquale, but the only Norinas whose hearts would not flutter in response to such a serenade would be either deaf or dead ones.

There are greater depths of expression in Donizetti’s music for Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore than many tenors bother to seek in their performances of the rôle. Content to garner laughs with a wide-eyed bumpkin’s antics, they leave to audiences’ imaginations the aspects of the guileless young man’s character that ultimately endear him to the sophisticated Adina. In his performance on this disc of the Act One aria ‘Quanto è bella, quanto è cara,’ Brownlee divulges to the listener that poetic wonder is not the exclusive right of those who are able to read poetry. The ebullience of a boyish affection is there in spades, but subtler emotions are also at play. This is also true of Brownlee’s singing of the ubiquitous Act Two aria ‘Una furtiva lagrima negli occhi suoi spuntò.’ There are so many dreadful recorded performances of Nemorino’s arias that one almost cringes to see them included in a disc’s track list, but Brownlee here offers performances of them that anyone who loves this music—or who appreciates singing in general—will want to hear again and again.

In November 2016, Brownlee brings his widely-praised portrayal of the lovesick Tonio in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, already savored by audiences in Cincinnati, New York, and throughout the operatically-inclined world, to Washington National Opera. Like his Italian cousin Nemorino, the Tyrolean Tonio is frequently depicted as an affable but essentially dimwitted fellow. To be sure, his Act One aria ‘Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête’ is not the most intellectually stimulating piece ever composed, musically or textually, but its infectious elation is irresistible. Here, too, having no need to fret over the music’s technical requirements, Brownlee looks more closely into Tonio’s heart than many of the tenors who sing the rôle. He interacts merrily but meaningfully with Mikalauskas’s Caporal, the voice pouring out with uncontainable glee. In Brownlee’s handling, there is far more to the cabaletta ‘Pour mon âme, quel destin’ than its eagerly-awaited string of nine top Cs. Each of those Cs rockets from Brownlee’s throat with infallible intonation, soaring as if to say, ‘Is this not how youngsters in love express themselves?’ Nevertheless, the man who so eloquently pleads his case to the intractable but not unmoved Marquise in the Act Two aria ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’ cannot be a backwoods yokel whose head is filled with cows and Edelweiss, and Brownlee unfurls the aria’s melodic line like a delicate ribbon. The interpolated top C♯ with which he crowns the aria is a tone of great plangency, a cry from Tonio’s wounded soul aimed squarely at the heart of the Marquise. In these performances, Brownlee’s upper register is unfailingly secure and vibrant, but his bel canto is defined by much more than effective high notes. The silver trumpet is vital, the requisite canto, but the silk is the bel without which singing is only stylized noise.

Recital discs often disclose more about singers’ egos than about their voices or artistries. In the insular setting of the recital disc, there are no needs for dramatic continuity or interactions with colleagues with which to be concerned. In too many instances, this freedom of sorts engenders sloppiness and showmanship of the most deplorable order. The singer in possession of an extraordinary voice can be forgiven for occasionally indulging the impulse to display it, but does a singer’s responsibility to composers dissipate when the project at hand is an aria recital rather than a recording of a complete opera? His singing of the selections on this disc, as insightfully-chosen a repertory as any singer has ever recorded, affirms that for Lawrence Brownlee the answer is obviously, emphatically No. These performances radiate unbreakable respect for Bellini and Donizetti and unshakable trust in the power of their music to, when sung as they intended it to be sung, convey complex emotions with universal simplicity. The tenor Marcello Giordano has been quoted as saying that ‘the tenor voice should be like sunshine.’ Sometimes sweet, sometimes scorching, Lawrence Brownlee’s voice is on Allegro io son always like silver gleaming through silk; a voice that generates its own sunshine.