24 Feb 2012
Michael Spyres — A Fool for Love
Tenor Michael Spyres’ star is on the rise and his highly enjoyable debut recital disc offers ample proof as to why.
As the editor of Opera magazine, John Allison, notes in his editorial in the June issue, Donizetti fans are currently spoilt for choice, enjoying a ‘Donizetti revival’ with productions of several of the composer’s lesser known works cropping up in houses around the world.
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We see the characters first in two boxes at an opera house. The five singers share a box and stare at the stage. But Konstanze’s eye is caught by a man in a box opposite: Bassa Selim (actor Tobias Moretti), who stares steadily at her and broods in voiceover at having lost her, his inspiration.
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This live performance of Laurent Pelly’s Glyndebourne staging of Humperdinck’s affectionately regarded fairy tale opera, was recorded at Glyndebourne Opera House in July and August 2010, and the handsomely produced disc set — the discs are presented in a hard-backed, glossy-leaved book and supplemented by numerous production photographs and an informative article by Julian Johnson — is certainly stylish and unquestionably recommendable.
Recorded at a live performance in 2012, this CD brings together an eclectic selection of turn-of-the-century orchestral songs and affirms the extraordinary versatility, musicianship and technical accomplishment of mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená.
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Alfredo Kraus, one of the most astute artists in operatic history in terms of careful management of technique and vocal resources, once said in an interview that ‘you have to make a choice when you start to sing and decide whether you want to service the music, and be at the top of your art, or if you want to be a very popular tenor.’
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In the thirty-five years immediately following its American première at the Metropolitan Opera in 1914, Italo Montemezzi’s ‘Tragic Poem in Three Acts’ L’amore dei tre re was performed in New York on sixty-six occasions.
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It would be condescending and perhaps even offensive to suggest that singing traditional Spirituals is a rite a passage for artists of color, but the musical heritage of the United States has been greatly enriched by the performances and recordings of Spirituals by important artists such as Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, Barbara Hendricks, Florence Quivar, Kathleen Battle, Harolyn Blackwell, and Denyce Graves.
Tenor Michael Spyres’ star is on the rise and his highly enjoyable debut recital disc offers ample proof as to why.
As he launched into the first cut, “Ah! mes amis” (Daughter of the Regiment) I found his sweet tone reminiscent of Javier Camarena, the poised musical line similar to Lawrence Brownlee’s, and the panache comparable to Juan Diego Florez. Not a bad triple threat combination there! And a very ballsy selection to start with since bel canto poster boy JDF not only had a very recent blockbuster success with Daughter in every major house and on DVD, but we also still have over-sized memories of the legendary Pav in the part.
Spyres seems to have a bit more heft going on than his immediate contemporaries, and while he squarely nails the requisite high C’s he doesn’t quite manage the varied colors and sassy ‘tude at the top that others bring to the part. Still, while his core voice may not exactly ‘live’ up there, he zings out the money notes with accuracy and skill. As he progresses directly to “Here I stand” (The Rake’s Progress), we immediately hear a more weighted quality, slightly rounder, discernibly fuller. If richness at the very top eludes him by a hair, he makes as much musical sense of the piece as anyone I have heard, keeping the angular dips and leaps admriably connected and focussed. The penultimate held note (“Ride”) is thrilling, gleaming, substantial. Moreover, Mr. Spyres has impeccable diction, and a dash of wit as he speaks “I wish I had money” as the tag.
As the tenor then segues into “Cessa di piu resistere” (The Barber of Seville), I am beginning to get the idea that he is looking to show his full aresenal, with sharp contrasts between the selections. Here, Michael utilizes a light-voiced approach for the most part, and scales back considerably to negotiate the fiendishly tricky, awkward, melismatic writing. His take-no-prisoners approach to Rossini and Donizetti, while commendable, makes him pull back on the very top notes, keeping everything very focused so that color and variety are somewhat slighted. In the stretto section where things get rhytmically heated, some of the fireworks are fudged ever so slightly. Spyres did astonish with a few very solid descents to the depths of his range and he has an unusually responsive lower middle.
The pendulum swings back to more full-bodied singing with “Una furtive lagrima” (L’elisir d’amore), in which he once again rounds the tone, lets it turn over, and brings it more into the speaking mask. He makes this aria anything but an old chestnut, lavishing it with creamy lines in which everything is solidly hooked up. This was excpetional vocalism, incorporating a masterful melding of the registers. For the first time, the voice seemed to have significant presence and power, so it made me curious just how much size he can convey in the house. With “Il Mio Tesoro” (Don Giovanni), Mr. Spyres seems to be affecting a “Mozart” style which came off a little bloodless compared to his other, more theatrically realized set pieces. There was absoltuely nothing wrong with it but he seemed a bit removed for the first time, when lo, he rallied for a solidly realized finish. I wish he could inform the first nine tenths of that piece with his final personalized commitment.
As for “Je crois entendre encore” (The Pearl Fishers) and “Pourquoi me reveiller” (Werther), based on this recorded evidence, Michale Spyres seems born to sing these French roles. He commands a well-controlled ‘messa di voce’ and an understanding of ‘voix mixte’ that are suavely deployed and exceptionally pleasing. In both, Spyres keeps the forward motion going with intensity and introspection. In the Werther he starts off with a slightly darkened tone and sober coloring that serve him quite well. By now I am seriously beginning to think his strong suit is not the florid singing (which seems more a party piece, just cuz he can do it). Both French pieces draw forth all his best instincts and elicit his most sonorous vocal approach. It would be a real pleasures to hear him in either of these roles.
Speaking of party pieces, I am not sure I have ever encountered the Italian Tenor’s solo from Der Rosenkavalier (“Di rigori armato il seno”) on a recital disc although plenty of star tenors have taken their turn at it on stage (fond memories here of Pavarotti at the Met during the “Luciano” season). Mr. Spyres sings it with a surging sense of line and an easy squillo that could be a preview of his own star turn in this role some day. I wondered what anyone could bring to “Che gelida manina” (La Boheme) that was fresh? How about simply an absolutely fresh new voice that is possessed of a solid technique. He convinces me even more with this aria that such roles are his eventual forte. He knows what he is singing and conveys it with directness, not as easy as it sounds. Michael unearths absolute truthfulness in the uncomplicated poet’s exposition.
Inviting another comparison with Florez, “La Donna e mobile” (Rigoletto) is a piece that JDF does most usually only in recital and it does push the brilliant Peruvian’s outer limits. But no such limitation exists for Spyres who delivers all the goods with bravado. Many a lyric tenor has come to grief over Edgardo (Lucia di Lammermoor) in general and “Fra poco a me ricovero” in particular. Spyres suggests a decent amount of gravitas and summons up a burnished tone for the long recit intro, then he doles out good but rather generic vocal lines in the wide-ranging aria. I wonder if he might discover the same wonderful variety that he brought to the recit and carry it forward into the aria?
“Kuda, kuda” (Lenksy’s aria, Eugene Onegin) is similarly characterized by a gorgeous tone but seems to lack a specifitiy evident elsewhere. He may speak Russian like a native for all I know but he finds less individualized drama in the text on this piece, which is well coached but not just yet his own. (When it is vocalized this well, and is so well-intended, am I just carping?) The reliable Moscow Chamber Orchestra really shines here under Constantine Orbelian’s efficient and supportive baton. The final selection “E la solita storia” (L’Arlesiana - Cilea) also really showcases Spyres interpretive gifts. The haunting, well-calculated musical build wedded to a splendid display of well accented parlando segued easily into beautiful arching lines.
This young tenor really knows where the music and the story are going, with each tale having a beginning, middle and end. He appears to be a conscientious and intelligent interpreter, coloring and tailoring his instrument and technique to make each genre as stylistically pure as possible. While he does tend to slightly cover or brighten top notes as needed for the varying demands, his is a reliable, freely-produced, imminently enjoyable timbre.
As for the structuring of the program, in the liner notes Michael makes a case for the sequence of the arias, selected to document a man’s life journey from first love to love lost. I do appreciate the thought that went into the content and the ordering of the pieces, but this is not after all Frauenliebe und -leben which is composed specifically with such a journey in mind. Rather it is more jukebox concertizing no better or worse than the shoe-horned songs of Mamma Mia! and the like. There is such a change in demeanor, such a departure of styles from one selection to the next that it just doesn’t communicate that this is one man on one journey. Admiring the scholarship, I demur that it does not play out to its intended effect. And really, with such diverse and wondrously effective singing on display, who cares?
As if a “Bonus” were needed, an encore of Dein ist mein ganzes Herz caps the disc, complete with dreamy, oozing, honeyed lines that drip Viennese enchantment, and featuring the very best climactic top notes of the compilation, ringing, forward and free.
Michael Spyres is on the fast track to being ‘the’ versatile, in-demand, go-to tenor in several different fachs. He promises much and, as evidenced by this debut solo effort, is already delivering handsomely on that potential.