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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Lawrence Brownlee: A Great Bel Canto Tenor

This is another blog in which I am going to have to excuse myself at the beginning for not being able to be objective, such is my admiration for Lawrence Brownlee.  So, be advised!

I cannot tell you how often people have expressed to me their genuine and heartfelt desire that bel canto would come back.  I think many of us feel that we more or less burned out on verismo in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.  Giant-voiced dramatic tenors, for example—Corelli, Del Monaco, Giacomini,  are great—we all love them—but, the general feeling is, it would be nice to mix a few Giglis and Schipas in there too!  Never too much of a problem with the female voices, as they seem infinitely adaptable, but tenors are another matter.  Thus the general feelings run.  However, the more one thinks about it, the less clear it all becomes.  I don’t think most people want verismo to go away—that’s not the point—they just want it accompanied by a nice mix of old good fashioned elegant singing characteristic of opera from long ago.  Enter  Sutherland, Pavarotti, Richard Bonynge, Marilyn Horne and Bellini, some years back, and things began to change.  All of a sudden, singers who were not themselves, by any means, delicate little mini-voiced “bel canto” singers per se began to bring back the high romanticism of the early 19th century and all of sudden the landscape began to change.  This was followed, fairly quickly, by a truly unexpected phenomenon: the return, after 200 years, of the very high voiced male singer. While we were mercifully spared the return of the castrati, we did get male altos and sopranos who sing every bit as well, and, I suspect, far better than most of their 18th  century progenitors (aesthetically speaking, I don’t think the unfortunate castrati, poor devils,  did much actual progeneratingJ.)  Now we have a landscape that is totally different, and I Pagliacci,, Cavalleria Rusticana, Aida and Andrea Chenier have very little choice except to share the stage with L’italiana in Algeri, La Cenerentola, Il Viaggio a Reims, Armida, and many others of that kind and period.  Not to mention the even older 18th century works where the male altos and sopranos now get a chance to shine.  So it’s all back, in force!  I, for one, rejoice.  Let us have it all—from Aida to Europa Riconosciuta and everything in between!

Into this new operatic world came Lawrence Brownlee!  His is a genuinely American story. Born in Youngstown, Ohio in 1972, he came up through the American university system, largely Indiana University at Bloomington.  From there it was on to young artists’ programs at Seattle and Wolf Trap, and, in 2002, his professional debut in the Barber of Seville at the Virginia Opera.  His rise, in a heavily bel canto repertoire, was fairly quick, and by 2007 he had made a Metropolitan Opera debut in a then-new production of the Barber. 

Brownlee’s voice is so spectacularly good (and high!) that he soon found himself singing around the world, from Madrid to Tokyo to Milan!  From the famous Barber which launched him at the Met, he soon added L’italiana in Algeri, La fille du régiment, and others.  Brownlee is a currently popular and performing artist, and we need not say much here of his life, other than to say that outside opera he is a prolific concertizer.

Lawrence Brownlee’s is one of those voices that speaks for itself.  He is as good as any leggiero tenor in the world, and better than most.  Here is a superb “A te, o cara”:

It is hard, verging on impossible, to imagine this classic bel canto tenor aria being sung better!  I have no problem whatsoever comparing this to the greatest renditions ever recorded, including that of Giacomo Lauri Volpi, one of my own personal favorites and easily one of the greatest tenors of all time.  Brownlee is that good!  The smoothness of the voice, purity of the legato, and the easy range—I assume you noticed this was in the original key and that is a genuine C#!—is almost beyond belief.  He is also extremely musical.  This is tenor singing of an extraordinarily high degree.

Here is the tenor tour-de-force “Ah! Mes Amis!” from The Daughter of the Regiment:  Brace yourself for 9 high C's, the last one of which brings down the house!

I find it increasingly difficult to to analyse anything so perfectly done.  Nine high C’s, the final one of which is beyond spectacular!  I suppose the thing that is most remarkable to me is the fact that this is a real tenor.  There is no forcing of the top here at all.  This is his natural range, and the repertoire, impossible for most, is completely appropriate for him.  Few tenors can sing this easily in this range.  Even in the day when this music written, few if any tenors were expected to sing  full voice on such high notes.  It was common to sing them in falsetto.  How the composers’ jaws would have dropped if they could have heard Brownlee or other great bel canto tenors we have today such as Juan Diego Florez, who is equally spectacular in this repertoire.  Opera lovers have been yearning for decades to have singers like this, and now we have them!  And Brownlee is one of the very best….perhaps the very best.  I won’t get into that discussion, because it is hopeless, but the question, at least, is legitimately raised.

Finally, an aria outside the leggiero bel canto repertoire, at least of the kind we have seen, and from what is most commonly considered  the more nearly standard lyric repertoire— the famous aria from the Pearl Fishers, “Je crois entendre encore”:

What is immediately apparent is the stylistic switch that Brownlee accomplishes.  Even his deportment as he stands and sings is different; more restrained, more elegantly presentational, in the older school of concertizing.  It is immediately elegant; the French is excellent, the tessiture high but restrained, and the style is post high romantic and more modern.  It all works very well, and it is worth noting that even with the above restraints, he still sings the aria in a higher key than most tenors do.  That is a near-sfocato high C at the end, of the Di Stefano kind, which puts the aria in a rarer mode than that in which it is most commonly presented. 

There is no question about it.  This is a great tenor, all the way around, and one in which America can be justifiably proud!







JD Hobbes said...

Wow! He is a remarkable singer, and he has the body of an athlete.
Thanks for this posting.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Mr. Hobbes! How nice to hear from you. Yes, remarkable is the word. This is a great voice, by any standard and in any time! I think he is quite an athlete, in fact:-) At least one of these Youtube videos has him doing a concert with one foot, which looks broken, all wrapped up! Strikes me as a very down to earth Midwestern guy, of the Ohio/Indiana variety!

Daniel James Shigo said...

Wonderful, wonderful voice! That you for posting this. I am sorry to have missed his recital debut here in New York since it was sold out, but look forward to hearing him live soon.

Mr. Brownless holds his own quite nicely when compared to the greats who came before him. I hope he has a long and rewarding career.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Nice comment! Thank you very much. Yes, I feel as you do. And as I mentioned in the article, I feel safe comparing him favorably to even the greatest of tenors. He really is superb!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful voice! Thanks for writing on him. I know that he performed several times in Russia and got good reviews from our strictest opera-lovers:) In fact he sounds as astounding as Flores does. Maybe he has the same teachers?
His version of ‘Je crois entendre encore” is a masterpiece.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Natalie! I don't think their teachers were the same, but they certainly have mastered the art of bel canto tenor singing. They both share the ability to sing comfortably in the high tenor register. So often, tenors are short on top, but not these guys! They can sing these demanding arias in the original keys, the kind of thing Italian tenors are so good at. In fact, in Italy, you can get get booed off the stage if you take famous arias transposed down. The Italians do not take kindly to that at all! Yes, Brownlee and Florez are absolutely top rate tenors. I'm glad to hear he was successful in Russia. Your opera fans, like Italians, really know their stuff and are very demanding!
Thanks again for the comment!

Anonymous said...

Hi Edmund:

Thank you so much for the latest blog, a new name for me. Quite
DIVINE vocally and such elegance in his delivery. I could watch him and listen to him all day.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Sally. Not sure if he has sung in Switzerland yet or not. It may be he has not made it there yet, but if and when,I think he will get a big welcome. It's really quite a voice! Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I bought his DVD from the 2009 MET live performance of La Cenerentola, Rossini.
Flawless and breathtaking, the only thing to point it's really his lack of height when compared to Elina Garanca who was doing the Cinderella role :)

Edmund St. Austell said...

Ah, the curse of more than one tenor:-) Seems to go with the territory!

DanPloy said...

Hello Edmund,

I have not had the opportunity to hear Lawrence perform live and that is unfortunate; in my experience that is essential to really 'hear' a singer, especially with so many auto-tune and such devices these days.

From the clips you provide and some others I listened to he is a very elegant singer. To start with the Bellini aria was inviting comparisons as you so provocatively did. So as you invited the comparison I will respond, but it may mean I rain on your parade I'm afraid.

Lawrence is without doubt a good singer. Good is an underused word as today anyone capable of screaming a note is deemed 'awesome'. Good is what it means, I was always happy if I got a good at school. But there are so many singers these days that can sing the 'bel canto' repertoire. From Chris Merritt to William Matteuzzi.

Don't you feel they all sound a little bit 'samey'. True they have very good extensions to their voice, but do you not feel that in getting that flexibility they have had the emotion drained from their voices. O te o Cara is not a voice test, not a few few phrases that lead to the 'D' or C#. When Lauri Volpi sings that the note is just another means to express his emotion, but the phases before are not just prefectures to show off technique, but words to be caressed. Lawrence I feel skips through them to get to the show piece note.

When I first heard Cortis (on CD) sing Calaf I thought, this is silly, he does not have the power to do this. But he made me listen to words through intelligent phrasing, he made me realise Calaf as a character that Corelli never could. Lauri-Volpi brings a character to life, make me see his motivations, his feelings. Brownlee doesn't do that. All I know of his Arturo is he can sing high notes, but I see nothing of what is in his head or his heart.

That said, even to evoke any comparison with Lauri-Volpi means he is a singer of the highest quality. But as with Pavarotti. technique alone does not make a great singer.

JING said...

Thanks, Edmund, for a sincere and disarming commentary and such lovely selections. Mr. Brownlee is indeed well known in the Washington DC region - in opera, concerts, oratorios, and even received a terrific ovation for singing the Star Spangled Banner at a Washington Nationals baseball game. He also performed in a concert at the Supreme Court with Rene Fleming. Our region would love to claim him as a native, but, as you note, he is a native of Ohio (even better!).I have also read he loves salsa music and dancing. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm for such a magnificent man and artist.

Edmund St. Austell said...

My pleasure, my friend! Great comment! It's always such a pleasure to read your comments. This is no exception!

Edmund St. Austell said...

For Dan Ploy
Well, I'll tell you, Dan, you write with such elegance, and invariably make such good common sense, that the "manny" thing for me to do, I suspect, is just throw in the towel right off the bat:-) Yes, you're right, of course. That's the other side of it all--the vocal+ side. And yes, good tenors have value too. Not everybody is a great singer; else, what is left? Maybe that's the danger of a blog called Great Opera Singers? I guess, bottom line, it just sounds more fetching that "Adequate Opera Singers.":-) But of course you are right, I can't argue the's just fun to let oneself get carried away de temps en temps! Points conceded, and thanks, as always, for presenting a brilliantly lucid argument, always appreciated, always respected!

Anonymous said...

Dear Edmund,
I'm so sorry about the off-topic, but I was recently presented to a couple of recordings of two amazing voices who barely have youtube entries. I'm talking about the catalan tenor Juan Lloveras and the dutch soprano Cristina Deutekom. Two amazing voices who I had absolut no knowledge. Do you have anymore insight about these two voices?

Edmund St. Austell said...

I'll see what I can find out.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Sorry, I came up with nothing. A few scant references, but no music available. Amazon had nothing, Youtube nothing. Most interesting. Perhaps one of our readers will know something

Edmund St. Austell said...

Sorry, I came up with nothing. A few scant references, but no music available. Amazon had nothing, Youtube nothing. Most interesting. Perhaps one of our readers will know something

Hildegerd said...

I truly liked his timbre.

The Balch said...

I had the pleasure of seeing him in recital last month at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. It was a program consisting entirely of art songs, in FIVE languages! He's a very generous performer, and of course, I found the voice itself to be very beautiful. I even got to meet him afterwards, at a reception. Like you said, he's a really down to earth, gracious person. Isn't it nice when an admirable artist turns out to be an admirable human being, too?

I think I read a comment of yours somewhere regarding Juan Diego Flórez, in which you suggested that he lacked the "cupola" of older bel canto singers...and Brownlee? He voice feels rounder and richer to me.

Edmund St. Austell said...

I believe I would agree with that. Brownlee's is the richer voice! Good comment, thank you very much!

Roberta Huebner said...

I first heard Mr. Brownlee in the Met's HD La Cenerentola and was very moved by his portrayal. As to the height difference with Ms. Garanca, it somehow worked, reinforcing the theme of finding love based on the inner rather than outer person, valuing the other's soul rather than looks, title, etc.
I find his voice rich, warm, vibrant, highly expressive of the appropriate emotion to the role; and he is a fine actor, both physically and vocally. He is deeply musical and one of the greatest of our time.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Wonderful comment! Thank you very much indeed!

Wen said...

Larry, without a doubt, is fantastic! I'm proud to say I'm a friend of his and have known him many years, even way before his stardom-- since college. He was always a very good singer, but it seems the stars aligned and he took full advantage of the breaks he was granted. Besides the amazing bel canto, the one thing I've always admired as he's always stood true to himself and his faith in God. He's as humble as they get, and he only sees himself as a regular person.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Great comment, and very much appreciated! Thank you!

Darren Seacliffe said...

Edmund, being a lover of bel canto, I certainly would sympathize with your delight in Lawrence Brownlee's singing. He is almost certainly one of the bright stars we have in the opera circuit, even in bel canto where we are blessed in already having several singers who show great promise like Colin Lee, Stephen Costello, Francesco Meli. Brownlee's much better than them, even when they offer stiff competition.

Brownlee might be best known as a Rossinian tenor but hasn't anybody noticed that he has several uncanny similarities with the great Pavarotti. When I first heard him, if I hadn't seen the title of the video, I'll have thought it was Pavarotti himself. As we all know, Pavarotti was once the king of the high Cs, reigning supreme over the bel canto repertoire before he made a switch to the more profitable Verdi and verismo standard fare. We can only hope that Mr. Brownlee chooses not to imitate Pavarotti in this sense.
With such a warm rounded tone and a technique that allows him to navigate the stratospheric coloratura registers Bellini wrote for Rubini, we can only hope that someday Mr Brownlee would do more Donizetti in future. Or even better, develop into a baritenor. This way, we can have 2 of the best Rossinian tenors the world has ever seen in a series of Rossini operas. Can you imagine a Brownlee-Florez partnership? It would most certainly surpass the great Blake-Merritt partnership in the 90s.

Donizetti's jaws would have dropped if he heard Brownlee. I don't think Bellini would have liked the way Brownlee sings. I have no proof to back up this statement since Bellini was long gone before Donzelli and Duprez started singing high Cs from the chest but I'm certain Rossini wouldn't have liked it. After all, he was the one who commented that the high Cs which the great Duprez sang from the chest were like chicken scratches.

Darren Seacliffe said...

These are my responses to a few of the comments I saw here:

Dan, I've heard Merritt and Matteuzzi before. I believe Merritt sang a slightly different repertoire from Brownlee. Not just today but even when he was still performing bel canto. Merritt's a baritenor. He's not as good as Brownlee in the roles they both shared but he can still hold his ground in the baritenor roles in Rossini's opera serie. I'm grateful to Mr. Matteuzzi for his role in the Rossini revival but let's be honest, if he started his career after the revival, I doubt if he'll be as successful as he was, given the whiny sound he makes.

I agree with you that bel canto tenors generally sound the same but to be honest, I think it's more the music than them. Rossini and Bellini arias don't have as much room for expression, emotional and psychological depth and dramatic impact as Verdi's and Donizetti's. In simple terms, there's only so much you can make out of them..Sad but true. If Rossini and Bellini had been able to rectify these problems, Donizetti wouldn't have had so many problems in realizing his concept of opera as musical dramas as opposed to a series of musical numbers strung together by a weak plot that falls apart on the simplest analysis.

I share your enthusiasm for the great Lauri-Volpi. His renditions of the Bellini and Donizetti arias are unparalleled. He also makes me appreciate Verdi and verismo in a new light with the attention he gives to the lyrics and the aristocratic veneer of his singing. You're right. He was a bel canto tenor. However the bel canto tenor he was isn't the same as the bel canto tenors which Matteuzzi, Merritt, Brownlee and Florez were. One tenor who was a bel canto tenor like Lauri-Volpi would be Antonio Cortis, whom you described earlier.

Cortis and Lauri-Volpi were bel canto tenors in that they were tenors from the bel canto school of singing. The bel canto school of singing refers to the singing tradition which started from Donzelli and Duprez and ended with Lauri-Volpi. Singers belonging to this tradition were the ones who premiered Donizetti's and Verdi's works. They worked with the composers themselves which meant that their interpretations of these works are more historically accurate than the ones we hear today. These singers are usually very elegant and smooth in the way they sing. However, one problem is that they have certain mannerisms which may not go down well with modern listeners. Sometimes they may use excessive ornamentation, making the singing too sweet or adding high notes which were never there or playing with the words to improve the sound they make.

Matteuzzi, Merritt etc. are also bel canto tenors but they're not from the bel canto school of singing Lauri-Volpi belonged to. They come from the modern school which combines the characteristics of verismo and bel canto. They're known as bel canto tenors because their repertoire is essentially made up of bel canto operas. Donizetti, Rossini, Bellini, Mercadante and Pacini would be the main composers of this genre.

Edmund, you're right. With so many great singers, there's a risk that we'll be unable to distinguish between the cream from the chaff. However, if they weren't great, nobody would bother remembering them. Of course there are some overrated ones but I'm sure each and every one of them has some redeeming features that enrich the history of singing. I don't think an 'Adequate Opera Singers' blog is possible. I mean, if someone is able to make a living as an opera singer, he has to be good. If not, he won't be able to make a career out of it though of course there are a few exceptions like Florence Foster Jenkins.

Darren Seacliffe said...

Anonymous, I've heard Cristina Deutekom twice, once in I Lombardi and the other in Attila. She's not one of the very greatest coloratura sopranos. Not as technically gifted as Sutherland, not as dramatic as Callas and doesn't have as much stage presence as Gencer did but she is good in the sense that she has the attributes of these 3 in her person. She can act better than Sutherland vocally and her voice is more appealing than Callas, more beautiful and richer. She can give a good performance every now and then. I don't know about the tenor but I can ask around if you like. I have a few Spanish friends who'll probably know more about him.