Are two tenors better than one? It depends. When their names are, in alphabetical order, Lawrence Brownlee and Michael Spyres, the answer must be an emphatic yes. Their joint appearance at the Concertgebouw last Wednesday made you forget that other voice types exist. At the end of the concert the rapturous audience was craving all tenors, all the time. Both American singers had appeared in Rossini operas at Amsterdam's Dutch National Opera, while Spyres was making his Concertgebouw debut. Bundling their respective bel canto skills, they sang Italian and French arias and duets from the first half of the 19th century, stretched by a decade or two at each end with Mozart and Bizet. Head-spinning top-notes and flouncy runs are part and parcel of this repertoire, and both Spyres and Brownlee dispatched plenty of those. But there was so much more. The subtle colours in Spyres’ mezza voce in “Du pauvre seul ami fidèle” from Auber’s La Muette de Portici, for example. Or Brownlee’s sweetly plangent upper middle voice, a legal substance that can be highly addictive.

Michael Spyres and Lawrence Brownlee © Ronald Knapp
Michael Spyres and Lawrence Brownlee
© Ronald Knapp

The unsparing programme featured extracts from the familiar (Bellini’s Il pirata) and the uncommon (Cherubini’s flop Ali Baba). Originally, each half of the programme was to start with an overture, following solo recital tradition. But the singers requested the order of the numbers to be changed so that the only two orchestral pieces were played in the middle of each half. With such vocally demanding fare, this gave them some respite while preserving symmetry. The Residentie Orkest under Michael Balke first showcased its fine assets in Rossini’s overture to William Tell, with a mellow pastorale, a nicely brewed storm and a rhythmically tight galop. The second-half overture was from Ambroise Thomas’s forgotten comic opera Raymond. A melodious midsection and zippy finale made it a fitting companion piece to the Rossini. I wish I could say that the orchestra was as consistently fine when accompanying the singers. The solo contributions, such as the clarinet intro to the Verdi aria, were always gratifying, but, as a team, Balke and his crew were not always on the ball, bungling one too many an entrance. Moreover, Balke’s approach was at times too angular, especially in Rossini. That said, this recital was all about the soloists and they were both sensational.

Michael Spyres and the Residentie Orkest © Ronald Knapp
Michael Spyres and the Residentie Orkest
© Ronald Knapp

Spyres got the evening going with the virtuosic version of “Fuor del mar” from Mozart’s Idomeneo, bowling everyone over with his astonishing combination of heroic verve and agility. Brownlee then opened the bel canto challenge with a ringing rendition of “Terra amica” from Rossini’s Zelmira, with vertiginous cadenzas and a repeated cabaletta. A lagging orchestra somewhat deflated their first Rossini duet, from Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra. Their second, just before intermission, was much more energised. In a confrontation from the crusader opera Ricciardo e Zoraide, the tenors dared each other to sing low and perform breathtaking diminuendos on floated high notes. These Rossinian feats were preceded by Brownlee crafting Bellinian beauty in “Per te di vane lagrime” from Il pirata and Spyres producing a pining legato in Jacopo’s exile aria from Verdi’s I due Foscari

Lawrence Brownlee © Ronald Knapp
Lawrence Brownlee
© Ronald Knapp

Maybe it’s because they left the best Rossini for the second half, but after the break the programme got more interesting. Brownlee treated us to a full, resplendent top D in Chapelou’s song from Le Postillon de Longjumeau. He later countered Adolphe Adam’s jolly number with a nobly phrased “Asile héréditaire” from Rossini’s Guillaume TellSpyres tugged at the heartstrings as Eléazar, conflicted father, in “Rachel quand du seigneur” from Halévy's La Juive. The show ended with a vocal joust, Rossini’s Otello-Rodrigo duet “Ah vieni, nel tuo sangue”. The tenors, who had been applauding each other all evening, now defied each other to go higher, fly longer and dive deeper. Slinging true high Cs and Ds as if they were nothing, holding on to notes as if pressing an emergency buzzer, taking lusty, two-octave plunges – it isn’t, perhaps, the highest artistic expression, but it was a thrill-a-second ride.

And, with the performance running half-an-hour late, the tenors went and repeated this duet as their second encore. For their first, they extended Bizet’s presence after a beautiful “Je crois entendre encore” from Brownlee in the main programme. In the popular Nadir-Zurga duet from the same opera, The Pearl Fishers, Spyres took the baritone part. And he was more than credible; his voice seems to have a chameleonic ability to lighten and darken its timbre at will. What a bountiful programme, and what a pair of dynamite performers!

****1