This past week brought the first installment of the new “Renee Fleming’s VOICES!” series at the Kennedy Center. The bad news is that this is not the name of a new drag revue she is curating. The good news is that the first concert was devoted to the exceptional artistry of Lawrence Brownlee.
Brownlee has been a regular presence in DC over the years since participating in the Wolf Trap young artist program, and this appearance comes in advance of a string of performances of La Fille du Regiment at WNO next month. The timing was fortuitous in another way as well: earlier in the day, he had performed for vice president Joe Biden, the visiting prime minister of Italy, and other Washington dignitaries, in what sounds like an episode of West Wing specially engineered to get me choked up.
Sometimes the sign of a good vocal recital is feeling like you’ve learned valuable information about the art song tradition. This was the other kind, where you go long stretches forgetting the translations exist because you keep getting distracted by the voice in front of you. Brownlee’s light, golden timbre, hummingbird vibrato, and effortless upper extension were all in evidence here, though the middle range seems to have an earthier edge now, that elegant touch of sob perhaps a bit more prominent.
Three Liszt songs on texts by Victor Hugo made for a solid warm-up set. The wistful “Oh! Quand je dors” (yet another Liszt joint about Petrarch) was especially fine, with a beautiful limpid high note on the final cry of “Laura.” The following “Seul sur la terre” from Donizetti’s Dom Sebastien signalled that Brownlee would not be stingy with the operatic red meat here, unfurling a series of laser-focused high C’s and a D-flat.
An extended group of Richard Strauss songs were the furthest afield from Brownlee’s familiar rep, especially the involved “Heimliche Aufforderung,” which felt like a bit of a chore, and the expansive, bordering on overwrought, “Cacilie” which tested the credibility of Brownlee’s Bacchus impression in a few spots before coming to a confident conclusion. The more focused inner selections were lovely, including the seductive “Breit’ uber mein Haupt” and a thoughtful, mysterious “Die Nacht.”
The second half opened with Brownlee taking on the daunting “Terra amica” from Rossini rarity Zelmira. Witnessing an artist of Brownlee’s caliber wrestle one of these showpieces to the ground at close range is a rare thrill. It was also a reminder that he is a very physical singer, something that can get lost in the back of the Met. Though he dispatched the knotty passagework with fierce determination, at times it felt more effortful than one would expect from him. Top notes were blazingly secure.
The meat of the second half was devoted to a series of Bellini songs. Brownlee handled the wide gamut of colors and moods in “Torna, vezzosa Fillide” with consummate style, from the lilting legato lines of the middle section to the stormy conclusion. Arrestingly beautiful readings of the miniatures “Ma rendi pur contento” and “Per pieta, bell’idol mio” elicited a collective swoon from the crowd, and in “La ricordanza,” Brownlee unleashed full, unapologetic crooner mode for a winning finale.
Brownlee’s affection for the final group of spirituals by H.T Burleigh elevated this set above the perfunctory feeling that can attend the English chaser part of the recital. His light, lyrical sound is a welcome alternative to the pummeling similar pieces can suffer at the hands of heavier operatic voices, though he had trouble with some of the lower notes. The final rendition of “Give Me Jesus” was especially moving.
Brownlee’s collaborator at the piano, Justina Lee, certainly demonstrated the sympathetic touch needed for these pieces, though, perhaps due to quickly assembling the evening, her contribution was noticeably routine in places and a few of the more demanding passages felt tentative.
The generous spirit of the evening’s programming extended to the single encore, a finely wrought “Una furtiva lagrima,” announced to squeals of glee from the weeknight crowd of vocal nerds.