Sunday, 8 June 2014

Lawrence Brownlee - Virtuoso Rossini arias

Virtuoso Rossini Arias - Lawrence Brownlee - Delos
Virtuoso Rossini Arias: Lawrence Brownlee, Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra, Constantine Orbelian: Delos
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 2 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Bravura showcase of Rossini tenor arias

Lawrence Brownlee's new disc on Delos, with Constantine Orbelian and the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra is an exploration of Rossini's operatic tenor arias with solos from comic operas La gazza ladra, L'occasione fa il ladro, Il Turco in Italia and Le Comte Ory, and serious operas Semiramide, Otello, La donna del lago and Zelmira.

The arias are all, needless to say virtuoso. After all Rossini was writing for some of the greatest singers of the day. Rossini was in fact quite sparing in his use of arias, generally duos, trios and ensembles dominate his operas. But Brownlee has come up with a varied selection, perhaps wisely eschewing Almaviva's frequently cut final aria from Il Barbiere di Sivigla which has become something of a calling card for Juan Diego Florez.

The tenors of Rossini's day would have used a significantly different technique to modern-day tenors. Generally early 19th century tenors took their chest voice up to G or A, but when singing decorated passages had access to a head voice which would take them far higher. Heavier tenors like Andrea Nozzari (the first Otello) used the upper head voice purely for decorative notes but Giovanni David (the first Rodrigo in Otello) used to be able to sustain a melody line in this high register. The tenor Domenico Donzelli (the first Pollione in Bellini's Norma) described in a letter to Bellini how 'The range of my voice is nearly two octaves from low D to top G. My chest voice is to G, and it is in this range that I can declaim with vigour and sustain all the force of the declamation. From G to high G, I can use a falsetto, which provides a means of decoration'. He is describing a technique what as effectively fallen out of use nowadays.

Brownlee has a brilliantly vibrant voice, and in some ways it has always seemed surprising that he combines such a high tension instrument with the technique and dexterity needed for these bravura arias. But combine it he does, and very stylishly.

Vieni fra questa braccia from La gazza ladra (1817) is a charmingly perky number, its elaboration indicating that for Rossini a comic opera did not mean any simplification of vocal line (in fact La gazza ladra is semi-seria). Le Comte Ory was Rossini's last comic opera, written for Paris in 1828.  In Que les destins prosperes, a long orchestral introduction leads to a cavatina with a finely elegant line. Here though we also encounter an annoying element of Brownlee's technique. For top notes (C and D) he emphasises them, elongating and pushing them out of line. This is very much a 20th century practice and it becomes wearisome.

L'occasion fa li ladro (1812) is one of the early one-act comic operas (farse) Rossini wrote for Venice. Brownlee sings D'ogni piu sacro impegno with a gentle lilt but nicely incorporating the elaborate ornaments into the vocal line. With the fast section we are fully able to appreciate Brownlee's stupendous technique.

Otello (1816) was one of the operas Rossini wrote for Naples, taking advantage of company's superb ensemble which included three of the leading tenors of the day. The role of Rodrigo in the opera is far larger than in Shakespeare and was allocated to star tenorino Giovanni David. In Che ascolto Brownlee starts off elegantly but develops a nicely vigorous faster section.

Semiramide was Rossini's final Italian opera, written in 1823 for the Naples company to perform in Venice. Ah dov'e, dov'e il cimento is finely stylish and again I liked the way Brownlee naturally incorporated the ornaments into the vocal line.  The aria from Il Turco in Italia is equally impressive. Rossini wrote the comic opera in 1814. Brownlee shows that the tenor character Narciso's spectacular rage aria Tu seconda il mio disegno is anything but comic and I particularly loved the cries of Vendetta.

La donna del lago is another of Rossini's Naples operas, written in 1819 and based on Sir Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake. O fiamma soave starts with a long orchestral introduction with throbbing clarinets and an evocative horn solo. Brownlee displays an elegant line before the music works itself up into bravura fireworks and ardent passion.

The final aria on the disc is from Rossini's final opera for Naples. Written in 1822 Zelmira is not Rossini's most successful opera. However the cavatina Terra amica makes a lovely solo number and in the amazingly perky second half Brownlee treats us to some spectacular top notes.

Brownlee is well supported by Orbelian and the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra, and there are some lovely orchestral moments and fine instrumental solos. The CD booklet comes with full notes, texts and translations.

This is an impressive disc and showcases Brownlee's incredible technique. If I had to be picky, then I would admit that at times I did wonder whether he could bring more light and shade in the voice and more variety of colours. But his command of the notes and the style is quite stunning. Listen and be dazzled.

Gioacchino Rossini (1792 - 1868) - Vieni fra questa braccia (La gazza ladra 1817) [5.22]
Gioacchino Rossini (1792 - 1868) - Que les destins prosperes (Le Comte Ory 1828) [5.15]
Gioacchino Rossini (1792 - 1868) - D'ogni piu sacro impegno (L'occasion fa li ladro 1812) [5.06]
Gioacchino Rossini (1792 - 1868) - Che ascolto (Otello 1816) [6.56]
Gioacchino Rossini (1792 - 1868) - Ah dov'e, dov'e il cimento (Semiramide 1823) [7.43]
Gioacchino Rossini (1792 - 1868) - Tu seconda il mio disegno (Il Turco in Italia 1814) [6.20]
Gioacchino Rossini (1792 - 1868) - O fiamma soave (La donna de lago 1819) [8.41]
Gioacchino Rossini (1792 - 1868) - Terra amica (Zelmira 1822) [9.13]
Lawrence Brownlee (tenor)
Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra
Constantine Orbelian (conductor)
Recorded at Kaunas Philharmonic, Kaunas, Lithuania April 1-4 2013
DELOS DE3455 1CD [54.32]
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