On Sunday afternoon, Lyric Opera of Chicago presented a highly anticipated joint recital featuring tenor Lawrence Brownlee, bass-baritone Eric Owens, and accompanist Craig Terry. It was two hours of excellent music-making, the first half consisting of operatic arias and excerpts followed by the second half of spirituals and popular songs.
The singers seemed a mismatched duo in the first half. Mr. Owens began tentatively with Mozart’s concert aria “Cosi dunque tradisci,” looking physically stiff and maybe not sufficiently warmed up. The final low notes of the aria were barely audible even with soft piano accompaniment. By contrast, Mr. Brownlee bravely chose Tonio’s “Ah mes amis…Pour mon ame quell destin” from Daughter of the Regiment with its daunting number of high C’s, for his opening aria.
It was a triumph, dispatching those C’s with ease and beauty with not a hint of strain. Brownlee also looked comfortable in his own skin throughout the recital, exuding charm and personality. He also brought melting, haunting vocalism to Nemorino’s “Una furtive lagrima” and “Je crois entendre encore” from The Pearl Fishers. Brownlee seems at the height of his vocal powers, and made not a single misstep in the entire recital.
Mr. Owens showed his keen sense of humor before his next aria, hitting a falsetto version of the high C’s that were still floating in the air. He then did a fine job with Silva’s aria “Infelice” from Verdi’s Ernani, which seemed a better fit for his vocal heft. This was followed by an ineffective “Le veau d’or” from Faust, where he seemed to struggle with the quicker passages.
The duo also did two duets. In the first, the Nemorino-Dulcamara duet from L’elisir d’amore, Brownlee projected charm and naivete while Owens seemed uncomfortable again in the buffo material, but brought a keen sense of characterization and humor. The first half ended with the familiar Pearl Fishers duet “Au fond du temple saint”, and again Brownlee sang magnificently while Owens looked miscast. The voices didn’t blend well here.
Mr. Owens found his stride in the second half of the program, singing the spirituals with power, smoothness, and emotional depth. It was as if he was reborn during the intermission. Brownlee opened the set speaking with a microphone movingly about his autistic son and the difficulty of being on the road so much of the time. His first song “All Night, All Day” is about angels looking over the innocent. Brownlee has renamed it “Caleb’s Song” in honor of his son.
The beautiful arrangement by Damien Sneed brought down the house with Brownlee’s emotional singing. Mr. Owens followed with a potent, very personal, profound version of the spiritual “Deep River,” infused with a desperate longing for freedom. Owens was even better in “Give Me Jesus”, his most effortless singing of the recital, moving and personal.
The highlight of the popular song set was Brownlee’s jazzy, delightful singing of Warren and Dubin’s “Lulu’s Back in Town”, at the end of which he held high notes for superhuman lengths and then interpolated a couple of high F’s. This seemed to shock Mr. Owens, who immediately noted those F’s as in amazement. Owens delighted the enthusiastic audience with “Lollipops and Roses,” managing to make the cloying lyrics palatable.
The final set of spirituals ignited the audience that responded with clapping along with the singers and shouts of “Yes Lord!” Owens’ “Peace Be Still” was a wonder, the bass-baritone narrowing his big voice to a tiny thread in its final moments on the lyrics “peace, be still.” The stunned audience waited several seconds before erupting in applause. Equally fine was the last duet, “Every Time I Feel the Spirit”.
Much praise must go to pianist Craig Terry. His playing was deeply sensitive to the singers, and he brought great style and panache to each number. He was particularly fine in the popular song section, dispatching some amazing runs and quick notes. He also seemed genuinely fond of both Owens and Brownlee, and they of him.
Happily, both of these singers will be prominently featured in Lyric’s 2017-18 season. Owens brings his Wotan to Die Walküre, the second part of Lyric’s new Ring Cycle under David Pountney. Brownlee will be seen in a role that seems ideal for his current prime vocal estate, Arturo in Bellini’s I Puritani.