Wednesday 13 March 2024

Little short of a revelation: Michael Spyres, Les Talens Lyriques & Christophe Rousset explore Wagner's influences with In the Shadows

In the Shadows: Auber, Bellini, Berlioz, Halévy, Méhul, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Spontini, Weber, Wagner; Michael Spyres, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset; Erato

In the Shadows: Auber, Bellini, Berlioz, Halévy, Méhul, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Spontini, Weber, Wagner; Michael Spyres, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset; Erato
Reviewed 12 March 2024

A wonderfully imaginative recital, showcasing both the wide range and variety of Wagner's musical influences as well as Spyres' own virtuosity and adaptability

The mature Richard Wagner would have wanted you to think that his art sprang directly from his imagination, without the influence of other composers, but the reality was more complex. The young Richard was something of a sponge, soaking up influences from all over. For instance, in 1833 Würzburg Theatre staged Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable (premiered in Paris in 1831), it was the operatic event of the year. Richard Wagner's brother Albert was singing the title role and had managed to get Richard a job as chorus master at the theatre. 20-year-old Richard rehearsed the choruses of Meyerbeer's opera and this first exposure to the piece made a big impression on him. Another notable opera that Richard rehearsed was Auber's La muette de Portici. Richard would return to this French grand opera repertoire whilst he worked in Magdeburg (1834 to 1836) and in Riga (from 1837).

Tenor Michael Spyres' latest project is designed to explore just such influences. His disc, In the Shadows on Erato features music by Auber, Bellini, Berlioz, Halévy, Méhul, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Spontini, and Weber along with Wagner himself, performed with Les Talens Lyriques, conductor Christophe Rousset.

We begin with 'Vainement Pharaon, dans sa reconnaissance…Champs paternels' from Joseph, the 1807 opéra comique by Méhul, the foremost composer of the French Revolution and Napoleonic era. And in 1838, Wagner would acknowledge Joseph's influence on him. The music here is far Gluckian than you might expect and from this performance is definitely a composer to be explored. Spyres seems at home in the combination of long classical lines and Romantic colour.

Beethoven's Fidelio (1805/1814) had a clear influence on the young Wagner, both in terms of the music and in the development of the heroic tenor voice. Here Spyres sing's Florestan's opening scene, 'Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!…In des Lebens Frühlingstagen'. In both this and the Méhul, the orchestral contribution is significant, bringing out the remarkable colours of orchestration, along with drama and transparent textures. Spyres makes a Florestan in the mould of a lighter Jon Vickers, with the Canadian tenor's openness of tone, but here allied to a narrower focus and lighter touch. He will not be heroic or heavy enough for some, but I loved the sense of firmness and flexibility that he brings to the music.

For, as well as a journey into the antecedents of Wagner's music, this is a journey towards a particular type of tenor voice, one that combines power, stamina and flexibility. Often nowadays we find roles like Énée in Berlioz' Les Troyens or Jean in Meyerbeer's Le Prophete sung by voices with the 'requisite' weight and stamina, but without the flexibility. On this disc, Spyres demonstrates an ability to combine the two.

Rossini's influence on 19th century opera was ubiquitous, and another important element in the development of the 19th century tenor voice. We hear Leicester's 'Della cieca fortuna un tristo esempio…Sposa amata' from Rossini's Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra (1815). Spyres brings a remarkably heroic edge to music that we might think was lighter. The role was written for Andrea Nozzari, the tenor who created many Rossini roles including the title role in Otello (1816), and who had a voice that contemporaries saw as baritonal but with a high extension allowing for the pyrotechnics needed. Spyres has this in spades, turning in a finely dramatic and intensely thrilling account.

Meyerbeer would have a complex relationship with Wagner, but as we have seen his influence on the young Wagner was profound. Here we have Adriano's 'Suona funerea' from Il crociato in Egitto (1824), this dates from 1824 and we can hear both Meyerbeer's debt to Rossini and the hallmarks that would develop in his later works. Spyres manages to be plangently expressive, whilst also demonstrating his bravura chops too.

The theatrical works by Carl Maria von Weber held a central place in Wagner’s early development. Here we hear Max's Act One aria, 'Durch die Wälder, durch die Auen' from Der Freischütz (1821). I have to confess, that I would have loved to hear Spyres and Les Talens Lyriques in the Wolf's Glen scene from the opera, or something from Euryanthe (1823). But here, on a rather lighter scale, Spyres is all engaging charm with moments of high drama that look forward.

Auber's operas helped redefine the new style of French grand opera, whilst La Muette de Portici (1828) brought about an actual revolution too (in Belgium). We hear Masaniello's 'Spectacle affreux!…Ô Dieu! toi qui m’as destiné' from Auber's La Muette de Portici, where the voice's ability to move at speed seems to be as important as the more heroic aspect.. In fact, I have heard Spyres in this role, when the opera was performed in Paris at the Opera Comique back in 2012 [see my review] and for all the added weight on his voice some 12 years later, he still has the ability to thrill here.

Spontini moved his sphere of operations to Berlin following failures in Paris after the Restoration, but it his Parisian operas, La Vestale (1807) and Fernand Cortez (1809) that were his most influential. Spontini's Agnes von Hohenstaufen (1829) was his only major German opera, and we hear Heinrich's 'Der Strom wälzt ruhig seine dunklen Wogen'. That this is the first recording of the aria in German says a lot for how much still needs doing in terms of restoring Spontini's output. Here, it is a novelty hearing the French style with the underlying Italian accents but with German language. Spyres makes you wish to hear more, and if you played it to someone blind, then I think they might struggle to pinpoint the composer.

Bellini's Norma (1831) needs no introduction, but the influence of Bellini's endless melody on Wagner should not be underestimated. Here were hear Pollione and Flavio's scene, 'Meco all’altar di Venere…Me protegge, me difende'. Spyres turns in a wonderfully heroic performance, ably supported by Julien Henric.

Marschner's operas remain underestimated today, but Hans Heiling (1833) was one of the works that greatly influenced Wagner, not least the psychological complexity of the anti-hero. Here we hear Konrad's 'Gönne mir ein Wort der Liebe', a remarkably piece that really does seem to both look back to Beethoven and look forward to early Wagner. Spyres brings a lovely expansiveness to the lines, a feeling of breadth to the paragraphs that links both to the French works on the disc and to Wagner's own writings.

The disc ends with music from three of Wagner's early operas, the works where these influences can be seen at their music direct (and undigested).

First, Arindal's 'Wo find ich dich, wo wird mir Trost?' from Die Feen (1834) which is where we hear Wagner at his most influenced by his German predecessors. Like much of the other music on the disc, it calls on Spyres' distinctive blend of power and virtuosity. Then Cola Rienzi's Act Five aria 'Allmächt’ger Vater, blick’ herab!' from Rienzi (1840/1842). Here, Wagner was writing a French grand opera with a German libretto, and we start to hear the synthesis that would play an important part in the development of his own musical voice. Spyres sings the aria with a combination of poise and beauty of line that we don't really associated with Wagner performance nowadays (alas).

Finally, Lohengrin's 'Mein lieber Schwan' (1848), and I loved the way Spyres' opening phrase was sung with immense delicacy yet as the aria develops, the power opens up. No wonder Elsa fell in love with this Lohengrin!

I have to confess that I found this recital little short of a revelation. For the imaginative way the programme sheds light on Wagner's musical influences. For the revelatory way Spyres approaches each of the arias with his combination of power, flexibility, and virtuosity yet always singing with great style. Also for the contributions from Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyrique who bring their own distinctive style and a sympathy for the feel of the music, so that we hear even the familiar items anew. Once again, their contribution emphasises that in music from the first half of the 19th century, sensitivity to the original performance style, sounds and timbres is paramount.

ÉTIENNE MÉHUL 1763–1817 - Joseph: 'Vainement Pharaon, dans sa reconnaissance…Champs paternels'
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN 1770–1827 - Fidelio Op.72: 'Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!…In des Lebens Frühlingstagen'
GIOACHINO ROSSINI 1792–1868 - Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra: 'Della cieca fortuna un tristo esempio…Sposa amata'
GIACOMO MEYERBEER 1791–1864 - Il crociato in Egitto: 'Suona funerea'
CARL MARIA VON WEBER 1786–1826 - Der Freischütz Op.77: 'Nein, länger trag’ ich nicht die Qualen…Durch die Wälder, durch die Auen'
DANIEL AUBER 1782–1871 - La Muette de Portici: 'Spectacle affreux!…Ô Dieu! toi qui m’as destiné'
GASPARE SPONTINI 1774–1851 - Agnes von Hohenstaufen: 'Der Strom wälzt ruhig seine dunklen Wogen'
VINCENZO BELLINI 1801–1835 - Norma: 'Meco all’altar di Venere…Me protegge, me difende'
HEINRICH MARSCHNER 1795–1861 - Hans Heiling: 'Gönne mir ein Wort der Liebe'
RICHARD WAGNER 1813–1883 - Die Feen: 'Wo find ich dich, wo wird mir Trost?'
RICHARD WAGNER - Rienzi: 'Allmächt’ger Vater, blick’ herab!'
RICHARD WAGNER - Lohengrin: 'Mein lieber Schwan'
Michael Spyres (tenor)
Julien Henric (tenor)
Jeune Choeur de Paris
Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset (conductor)
Recorded: 2, 4–7.XII.2022, Salle Colonne, Paris
ERATO 5054197879821 1CD [84.49]

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