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Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury, Cadogan Hall
16 Jul 2017

A bel canto feast at Cadogan Hall

The bel canto repertoire requires stylish singing, with beautiful tone and elegant phrasing. Strength must be allied with grace in order to coast the vocal peaks with unflawed legato; flexibility blended with accuracy ensures the most bravura passages are negotiated with apparent ease.

Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury, Cadogan Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury, Les Martyrs (Festival Hall, 2015)

Photo credit: Russell Duncan


In the nineteenth century, tenor Gilbert Duprez and soprano Julie Dorus-Gras were two of the most celebrated practitioners of the art. Duprez has been mythologised as the man who, during his debut in Paris in June 1837 as Arnoldo in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, established the ‘modern’ tenor technique. Retaining a full-bodied tone, the chest voice, all the way up to the tenor’s high C, Duprez stunned audiences more used to the lighter voix mixte or head voice employed by the leading singers of the day, such as Nourrit or Bassini. So revolutionary was his technique, that in 1840 two French doctors, Paul Diday and Joseph Pétrequin, submitted a scientific report to the Académie des Sciences - ‘Mémoire sur une nouvelle espèce de voix chantée’ - describing Duprez’s timbre and laryngeal posture which they called ‘the voix sombrée ou couverte’ (dark or covered voice).

Julie Dorus-Gras was a leading prima donna in Paris during the 1830s and 1840s, described as by a journalist in the Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris (June 1839) as having a voice ‘of the most beautiful quality, with great flexibility and extraordinary range’: ‘Since poor Malibran, we have not heard a singer so completely mistress of her voice, which taste and sentiment guide and which practice improves every day.’ Another commented, in May 1841, ‘Take for granted that she was perfect and you will save me as well as yourself the boredom of a lot of clichés and repetition.’

This Bastille Day programme at the Cadogan Hall presented mainly French arias made famous by those two leading figures of the nineteenth-century French and Italian operatic scene and drawn from both the familiar and rare ends of the repertoire. American tenor Michael Spyres and Lebanese-Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury gave superb performances that surely confirmed that they can equal the legendary achievements and artistry of their predecessors.

Spyres and El-Khoury’s former Opera Rara partnership - as Polyeucte and Pauline in Donizetti’s Les Martyrs at the Royal Festival Hall in late 2014 - won accolades, as did the subsequent recording of the opera, released the following year. Reviewing the latter, I admired Spyres’ mastery ‘of the full range of bel canto gestures — not merely its show-stopping audacity’ and noted that El-Khoury ‘matches Spyres for passion and power’, judgements which were more than confirmed on this occasion.

At Cadogan Hall, Spyres used his astonishing range, unwaveringly steady tone and darker, baritonal hue in the lower realms to convey all of Othello’s stature, dignity and sensitivity in the Moor’s entrance cavatina, ‘Venise, ô ma patrie, from Rossini’s Othello. Conductor Carlo Rizzi immediately showed his command of this repertoire too, drawing shapely phrasing from the members of the Hallé and encouraging the instrumental melodies and solos - from clarinet, flute, horn - to engage expressively with the voice. Similarly, in the recitative and air, ‘Dans ces lieux ... Quand renaîtra’, from Halévy’s seldom heard Guido et Ginévra, we enjoyed a superbly expressive trumpet solo and some lovely quiet horn playing, in partnership with the harp, as Guido mourned at Ginévra’s tomb. The recitative was truly focused and engaging, and Spyres and Rizzi were responsive to the harmonic structure, the move to the major key pushing the music forward, and the voice ever relaxed as the repeating cadential patterns built towards the stirring close.

In Auber’s air, ‘Ils s’éloignent … Gentille fée’ (Le Lac des fees) Spyres showed his dramatic nous and presence. Albert and his fellow students find an enchanted lake and when the swans are transformed into fairies he promptly falls in love with one, Zéïla. The recitative which commences this aria was tense and urgent, as Albert watches his friends depart and questions the veracity of his vision and love, but when the besotted student addressed the magical object of his infatuation, the line was beautifully gentle, clean and calm. This boy was truly spellbound, but he didn’t stay transfixed for long: infused with delirium, Albert cries out to the immortal fairy to set him alight so that he may expire in her embrace! Spyres’ ability to switch almost instantly from enthrallment to ecstasy was remarkable; his tenor was so buoyant as he leapt through the excited phrases that he seemed to strive for the stratosphere in the closing section. And, the tenor had the stamina to repeatedly reproduce such feats throughout the evening, without the least hint of strain or marring of the firm, coppery sound.

El-Khoury was announced to be suffering from a summer cold and perhaps this occasionally hindered the full flow of the longest legato lines or affected her ability to control the quietest pianissimos. But, so rich and shining is El-Khoury’s voice that one barely noticed. And, she can certainly establish a dramatic mood and context in a whisker. The opening of Isabelle’s Act 4 cavatina, ‘Robert, toi que j’aime’, from Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable may not have had quite the necessary steadiness of line, but each textual phrase was imbued with meaning as Isabelle pleaded with Robert, dispossessed and dishonoured, to resist the unholy spirits that were tempting him and to put his faith in her mortal love.

In ‘Regnava nel silenzio’ (Lucia di Lammermoor) the coloratura passagework was as clear, and refreshing, as running spring-water and she showed that, summer cold or not, she can withdraw the sound to the slenderest of transcendent silver threads, and then swell and colour with immense control. And, the vocal power and precision were matched by El-Khoury’s dramatic perspicacity, both here and in the less well-known entr’acte and air, ‘Jours de mon enfance’, from Hérold’s Le Pré aux clercs, in which the rather slight melodic interest was supplemented by leader Simon Blendis’ softly floating violin obbligato.

Donizetti’s Act 1 Scena e Duetto Finale from Lucia, brought Spyres and El-Khoury together and showcased - through sweeping, airborne phrases and easeful vocal ascents - both the singers’ supreme mastery of this idiom and the sureness of Rizzi’s direction. But, it was the less well-known repertory that was most intriguing and enchanting. Guido et Ginévra recounts an episode from Florentine history: Ginévra, daughter of Cosimo dei Medici, has been poisoned by a magic veil and collapses during her marriage to the Duke of Ferrara. She is assumed to have succumbed to the plague raging through Florence and is buried in the Medici vault. When she awakens, she goes into the plague-ridden city and the Act 4 Scène et Duo (‘Conduisez-moi … Ombre chérie’) depicts her reunion with Guido in the snow-covered, bandit-controlled streets.

In the first section, for tenor alone, Spyres captured of all of Guido’s anxiety though the voice never pushed dynamically far above the restless pianissimo of the string tremelando. The sound of Ginévra’s cries, though, brought about a wonderful enrichening and ascent. As they marvelled at the miracle of reunion, Spyres and El-Khoury’s voices wound around one another in shining rapture, the melodic climaxes perfectly judged. Pleading with Ginévra to leave, Spyres hardened his tenor a little, creating urgency, and his incredibly high heroic declaration, ‘Je suis ton défenseur!’ was gallantly golden.

Terrific stuff. Spyres and El-Khoury left no doubt that they are worthy heirs to a tradition. And, one can enjoy these and other bel canto thrills on two discs which will be released by Opera Rara in September. Écho features roles associated with Dorus-Gras and to the Donizetti, Meyerbeer and Hérold heard on this occasion, El-Khoury adds arias by Rossini (Guillaume Tell), Halevy (La Juive) and Weber/Berlioz (Le Freyschütz). Spyres’ Espoir offers arias from some of the works - La favorite, Verdi’s Jérusalem - whose instrumental numbers the Hallé and Rizzi performed with discipline and passion at the Cadogan Hall - as well as items from Rosmonda d’Inghilterra and Benvenuto Cellini. Both singers duet on each other’s discs and are accompanied by Rizzi and the Hallé.

Claire Seymour

Joyce El-Khoury (soprano), Michael Spyres (tenor), Carlo Rizzi (conductor).

Auber - Overture to Manon Lescaut, Rossini - ‘Venise, ô ma patrie’ (Othello), Meyerbeer - ‘Robert, toi que j’aime’ ( Robert le diable), Halévy - ‘Dans ces lieux ... Quant renaîtra’ (Guido et Ginévra), Verdi Ballet music fromJérusalem, Halévy - ‘Conduisez-moi ... Ombre chérie’ (Guido et Ginévra), Donizetti - Overture to La favorite, Hérold - ‘Jours de mon enfance’ (Le pré aux clercs), Auber - Ils’ s’éloignent’ (Le lac des fées), Donizetti - ‘Regnava nel silenzio’ (Lucia di Lammermoor), Donizetti - ballet music from La favorite, ‘Lucia, perdona ... Se ad ora inusitata’ ( Lucia di Lammermoor).

Cadogan Hall, London; Friday 14th July 2017.

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