American tenor Michael Spyres has released a new album – Baritenor. It contains 18 selections which are presented in approximately the order in which they were written. They consist of arias written for tenor, tenor or high baritone, and baritone. Spyres has always shown a unique ability to adjust the character of his timbre; he can darken or lighten it as no other tenor I’ve heard. What’s a baritenor? Baritenor is a type of tenor voice which came to particular prominence in Rossini’s operas. It is characterized by a dark, weighty lower octave and a ringing upper one but with sufficient agility for coloratura singing.
Just before the COVID pandemic hit, Spyres appeared at the Met in two performances of Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust. He was not in good vocal condition. Before his Met debut he had followed a grueling performance schedule of mostly forgotten French operas. After the Met appearances he was to go on a worldwide tour. The virus canceled the enterprise and may have saved Spyres’ voice. His voice on the new recording is in pristine state. The enforced vocal rest seems to have been therapeutic.
Spyres has the top notes of a tenorino combined with the sound of a spinto tenor; he’s ready for both the big Verdi and Wagner roles, though he doesn’t seem think so. In a 2019 interview he stated that Wagner was 10 years away for him, no mention of Verdi. I think if he waits until he’s 50 to take on spinto roles he’ll be doing so on the descending slope of his career. He apparently intended to stick with French operas and Rossini.
His approach to the baritone parts included on the new recording is to morph into a true baritone. He avoids the problem inherent when a dark-voiced tenor sings a high baritone part – ie, the high notes are in the tenor’s passaggio and are often more difficult to emit with sustained force and impact than notes several tones higher. His singing of Il balen from Il Trovatore sounds like the reincarnation of Leonard Warren who may also have been a species of baritenor given that he could vocalise to a high C. Warren, however, never sang any tenor roles. Spyres is the only singer now active who could alternate as the Count and Manrico in the same run of Trovatore. Whether he could sustain an entire performance of an opera as a baritone is uncertain. Spyres also gives a ringing interpretation of the Prologue from Pagliacci. Interestingly, the two Mozart baritone roles are given the weakest performance on this compilation. There’s nothing wrong with them, they just make little impression.
His singing of In fernem Land from Lohengrin is also very well done. He sings the aria in French! I don’t know why, two other German arias are sung in the original language. I listened to the recital on Spotify and didn’t have access to the liner notes. Perhaps they explain the curious linguistic choice. Lohengrin’s first performance in Paris used a French translation by Charles-Louis-Étienne Nuitter. Still, why not sing the aria as the composer intended?
The final selection on the album is Glück, das mir verblieb is from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. The music is a duet for Marietta and Paul in Act 1. When done in recital the soprano or tenor sings both parts. The melody is on the very shortest list for the most beautiful of the 20th century. Spyres gives the piece a lush and resopant performance. His German diction is perfect. Aside from this lyrical music, which also concludes the opera, Paul requires a true heldentenor. A revival of the opera by the Met, not done by the company since 1923, with Spyres in the lead would be far better than the new operas recently mounted by the company. Many of these newcomers would work better as silent movies.
According to his website, Spyres has a performance of Act 2 of Tristan und Isolde as well as the Verdi Requiem on his schedule. He’s also signing Canio in Pagliacci. So perhaps his protestations of two years ago about avoiding the big tenor roles have been abandoned. I’d like to hear him take on Verdi’s Otello; he’s already done the Rossini version. He likely could also sing Iago.
The contents of the recital are below. Regardless of what repertoire Spyres decides on for the coming decade, the disc is a tour de force that will engage anyone with a taste for opera and extraordinary talent.