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!