An album of tenor duets is a relative rarity, perhaps reflecting a certain reluctance for operatic “friends and rivals” to subject themselves to the obvious odious comparisons (not to mention the agonising over who gets the top line). Fortunately, Lawrence Brownlee and Michael Spyres have risen above such petty squabbles to come up with Amici e Rivali, an inspiriting recital where technical mastery is enhanced by the sheer pleasure of hearing two men belting it out as if their lives depended on it. The definite feeling that they are having fun into the bargain is the icing on the cake.

Album artwork

Before Italian opera settled into the regular pattern of romantic lead tenor versus villainous baritone or bass, fans of bel canto, especially in Neapolitan houses, were regularly treated to a pair – or even a trio – of tenors going head-to-head. In the decade 1810 to 1820, no one exploited the opportunity for top notes flying left, right and centre quite like Rossini, and the bulk of this delightful survey comes from the seven-year period when the Master of Pesaro was under contract to the greatest impresario of his age, Domenico Barbaja.

The two men had access to an outstanding pair of tenors in Andrea Nozzari and Giovanni David. Nozzari was an elegant tenore di grazia until illness diminished his ability to sit above the stave (though he still had access to high notes when he needed them). He would sing in the premieres of all nine of Rossini’s operas composed for Naples. David, who sang opposite Nozzari in five of Rossini’s Neapolitan operas, was famous for a brilliance and effortless floridity at the top.

Brownlee has a light, lyric voice with plenty of character and an attractive ease in the upper range. For him, a high ‘C’ feels like a walk in the park. An inherent elegance places him probably closest to the younger Nozzari. Nevertheless, he’s capable of the vocal heroics of a David when called upon to stand and deliver. His ardent Ricciardo in a duet with the minor character of Ernesto from Ricciardo e Zoraide is deeply felt and full of lovely touches, especially in the lively, melodic cabaletta. Ditto his Uberto in La Dona del Lago with the role of Elena warmly delivered by Tara Erraught.

Michael Spyres is perhaps the closest thing we have today to David’s dash and vocal virtuosity with a thrilling tenor that pings around the room and with high notes aplenty. With a naturally lower centre of gravity than Brownlee, he’s well-suited to the roles written for the older Nozzari. That makes him perfect casting for the impulsive Rodrigo di Dhu in La Donna del Lago and the infatuated, villainous King Agorante in Ricciardo e Zoraide. The great duet “Ah! Vieni Nel Tuo Sangue Vendicherò” from Otello, with Spyres commanding as the moor and Brownlee thrilling as his love rival Rodrigo, is a treasure trove of bravura singing.

Spyres also turns out to be a vocal chameleon with an impressively baritonal middle range and surprisingly convincing bottom notes for a tenor. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the disc’s opener, the Act I Figaro/Almaviva duet from Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Unlike certain famous tenors who have fancied a crack at Figaro, Spyres manages to sound like a genuine baritone, and not a tenor merely slumming it. Not only that, the two men despatch it with a light comedic touch that’s brim-full of life.

Accompaniments are beautifully shaped throughout by Corrado Rovaris, his I Virtuosi Italiani playing with grace and style. Beautifully balanced, and with spacious engineering, at 80 minutes this is a generous disc imbued with a compelling joie de vivre that will have you rushing to enjoy it all over again. Oh, and listen out for the battle of the top ‘C’s in the trio from La Donna del Lago – a magnificent piece of vocal showboating.

Title: Amici e Rivali
Works: Rossini duets for tenors
Performers: Lawrence Brownlee, Michael Spyres t, I Virtuosi Italiani/Corrado Rovaris
Label: Erato 0190295269470

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