92nd Street Y 2021-22 Review: Lawrence Brownlee & Michael Spyres in Concert

Flawless Fun From the Two Tenors

By Chris Ruel
Photo credit:  Joe Sinnott

On Wednesday, Oct. 25, at New York’s 92nd Street Y, two titanic tenors of the bel canto repertoire, Lawrence Brownlee and Michael Spyres, delivered a playful antidote to the mid-week doldrums with a rip-roaring performance of Rossini barnburners from four of the composer’s operas, “Il barbiere di Siviglia,” “Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra,” “Ricciardo e Zoraide,” and “Otello.”

Backing them was Grammy-nominated pianist Myra Huang, who was as much a part of the lively show as Brownlee and Spyres.

Since the return of live performances, this concert was the best I’ve seen, so my review boils down to two words: flawless fun. The image at the top of this post provides proof.

This was a concert I wish I could have brought a dozen non-opera buff friends to witness because Brownlee, Spyres, and Huang—along with two of her pianist friends, Thomas Lausman and Bryan Wagorn—presented themselves as humans with superhuman gifts.

These A-list artists weren’t afraid to cut loose on stage and allow their personalities to shine through while handling some of the most demanding, and therefore rousing, tunes in the bel canto tenor repertoire.

Informal & Accessible

Brownlee sported a suit with an open-collared shirt and sneakers. The sneakers were something he claimed resulted from poor packing, but I think he should stick with the sporty kicks. Spyres looked dashing in a three-piece, gray window-pane suit, sans necktie, and Huang dressed comfortably in slacks and a blouse. It was as if they had come from a more formal setting and the concert was an after-hours event that arose spontaneously.

On stage, a competition between the musicians unfolded as Brownlee and Spyres shared music off their recent album, “Amici e Rivali,” a recording featuring many of Rossini’s most virtuosic pieces. The album spotlights not just the friends and rivals in Rossini’s operas, but also the friendship and rivalry between the two artists. And rivalry there was.

If you know of poetry slams or battle raps, the performance was the operatic equivalent, with Brownlee and Spyres attempting, in all good fun, to outdo one another whether through tongue-twisting cadenzas at lightning speed or going toe-to-toe in a fight over who could sing higher or lower—usually Brownlee with his light, yet powerful tone going high, while Spyres heavier voice took it low—into the baritone range—completely shutting down his rival who would come roaring back with a searing top note.

Through it all, there was backslapping and laughter between the three artists, with the tenors always remembering and acknowledging Huang for her unparalleled accompaniment. Brownlee and Spyres would playfully argue over who was going to take the high notes, with Brownlee at one point crossing himself for divine intervention, when Spyres threw down the gauntlet.

A Thirty-Fingered Warm-Up Act

It started with a six-handed rendition of the “Il barbiere di Siviglia” overture. Huang entered the stage with fellow pianists Thomas Lausmann and Bryan Wagorn, each taking a seat on the bench. With 30 fingers poised over the keys, Huang chuckled and momentarily halted the proceedings to collect herself. A ripple of laughter spread across the audience. What happened next was the first of several jaw-dropping moments that would occur over the next hour and a half.

When all those fingers began playing, they did so with such precision it was hard to comprehend. Each of the pianists on that bench is an elite accompanist. Many know Huang for her work as a leading interpreter of lieder and art song. I’ve seen her backing soprano Susanna Phillips at a small concert featuring compositions by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Alma Mahler, and Clara Schumann in an after-hours performance during Lincoln Center’s 2019 Mostly Mozart Festival, and she was brilliant, and she shone no less brightly at 92Y. The Oct. 25 performance with Brownlee wasn’t her first gig with the tenor. In 2018, the two paired up for a recital at Carnegie Hall. New York’s Classical radio station, WQXR, selected their performance as one of the best recitals of the year.

Thomas Lausman is a member of the Met Opera music staff, where he serves as the Director of Music Administration. He’s done stints across Europe as a conductor, coach, and performer, and since 2008, he’s been Principal Coach at the Bayreuther Festspiele.

The third member of the accompanist dream team, Bryan Wagorn, is another Met Opera staff member. Wagorn serves as an Assistant Conductor with the company. There are few places Wagorn hasn’t performed or served as a coach and few big-name stars he hasn’t appeared with—Joyce DiDonato, Anthony Roth Costanzo, and Pinchas Zukerman, among other greats.

The trio danced their fingers across the keys with supernatural speed, with their arms often crossing and creating nail-biting moments that drew me toward the edge of the seat. And speaking of seats, none of the three pianists remained in the same order on the bench for an extended period. Huang began at the high end of the 88 keys, with Lausman in the middle and Wagorn filling in the bottom. As the overture progressed, so did a game of musical chairs as each rotated through the octaves. When Wagorn moved into the top position, he stopped playing, pulled out his cell phone, and called out, “Selfie!” before snapping a photo of the three at the keyboard.

And so the performance began. Before a note passed Brownlee or Spyres’ lips, Huang, Lausman, and Wagorn had primed the audience for more delightful hijinks.

Burning Down the House – Highlights

First up on the program was a suite from “Il barbiere di Siviglia,” comprising “Largo al factotum” (sung by Spyres); “Cessa di più” (sung by Brownlee); “All’idea di quel metallo” (duet); and one of Rossini’s art songs, “La promessa” (sung by Brownlee).

The suite was electric. Spyres began singing “Largo al factotum” offstage and was enthusiastically greeted by the crowd as he embodied the lovable schemer, moving about the stage as if he were performing in a fully staged production. Spyres played with his range as a tenor, and then some. He dipped low—real low, almost into bass territory. He went high—real high, employing his head voice to comical effect. There seemed few places within his range he didn’t dare to go, and it was all intended to put smiles on unseen faces hidden behind masks. When not plumbing the depths or reaching for the stars, Spyres’ blazing speed could outpace a gazelle with a cheetah on its tail.

Brownlee came next with an exhilarating rendition of “Cessa di più,” a “Barbiere” Act two tour de force in which Count Almaviva thwarts Don Bartolo’s plans to marry the beautiful Rosina, uniting the lovers at long last. Brownlee was entirely in his element. Whether sitting on a high note or ripping through a cadenza, Brownlee thrills like few on today’s stage. The tenor is one of the best interpreters of the bel canto repertoire, and of Almaviva, in particular. Spyres is right there with him. I sensed I was in the presence of greatness—witnessing something very special, almost historic.

The two tenors came together for a lively presentation of “All’idea di quel metallo,” reenacting the scene rather than standing still, and “La promessa” and a second art song “L’esule” (sung by Spyres), slowed both tenors down and showed off the more passionate aspects of their voices.

Two arias from lesser-known Rossini operas “Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra (Elizabeth, Queen of England)” and “Ricciardo e Zoraide” closed out the first half of the concert, showcasing virtuosic passages with “Deh! Scusa i transporti” from the former, and “Donala a questo core” from the latter. Huang shone with “Deh! Scusa i transporti” a stormy piece in which Brownlee and Spyres’ voices mixed and mingled through the rippling runs, giving the audience the opportunity to hear the differences in vocal tone.

Following “Donala a questo core,” Huang had another moment in the spotlight when she played the famous overture from “Guillaume Tell,” which she herself transcribed. I enjoyed watching Huang take center stage. I haven’t seen accompanists get their own moments to shine, and it was a treat for the Huang fans in the audience (of which there were many) who were as much enraptured by her playing as by Brownlee and Spyres’ vocal acrobatics.

The suite from “Otello” featured a spectacular sing-off during “Ah vieni, nel tuo sangue.” with Brownlee singing the part of Roderigo and Spyres that of Otello. Spyres wowed the audience, and Brownlee, when he took his deeper voice into the highest part of his range, showing his friend and rival that there was more than one high-flying tenor on the stage. Throughout the suite, high notes were in abundance, and what thrills more than singing that’s not just fast but also stratospheric in range.

Ending on a High Note with a Donizetti Favorite

When the announced program ended, Brownlee, Spyres, and Huang exited to applause, hoots, and hollers. Upon their return, the appreciation they expressed to the audience was heartfelt and warm. They admitted the evening’s lineup of songs was intense and played at being winded. And I’m sure they were, but what came next showed how much gas remained in the tank, and it was far from empty.

Brownlee and Spyres huddled and spoke sotto voce, and after some pointing back and forth, settled themselves. Something big was about to happen. Brownlee announced they would end the night not with another Rossini tune, but one by another bel canto Italian composer, but the text was in French. Yes, friends, it was time for “Ah! Mes amis” from Donizetti’s “La fille du régiment.”

Brownlee and Spyres sang the piece as a duet, and the onstage conversation and pointing were about who was going to sing what. Spyres began and handed it off to Brownlee at “L’amour…” which gave Brownlee the high B flat, and wow! He sat on that note, and sat on it, and sat on it some more, with a full-throated forte. The crowd went bonkers. This was rock star stuff. When it came time for the eight high C’s, the tenors split the difference, with each taking four. Brownlee took one and Spyres followed right on his heels with the second, and so on. The tenors sang the final, thrilling ninth high C of the aria in unison, with both holding the note as long as humanly possible. Once done, Spyres, red in the face, laughed and held onto the piano to catch his breath, while Brownlee appeared impressed that they had pulled off such an epic encore.

Flawless fun.

It was wonderful being inside an auditorium where good times and opera went hand-in-hand; where the voice fed the soul, and laughter brightened it. Brownlee, Spyres, Huang, and friends not only delivered a breathtaking performance but gave freely the joy they took in making music together.


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