I saw a Facebook post in late 2020 showing Michael Spyres and Il Pomo d’Oro in Lonigo, Italy collaborating on baroque arias in a deep-red room familiar from many other Virgin/Erato recording sessions. In the many months since then, I’ve been impatiently awaiting that CD release.
When I finally received the sound files for Contra-Tenor last month, it took me nearly three hours to get through its 72 minutes. It wasn’t that I got distracted by other things: nearly every track I had to listen two or three times before I could move on. If I’d snapped selfies during those hours, they would have captured my ecstatic reactions to Contra-Tenor, one of the greatest recordings I’ve ever heard.
But this was no surprise as Erato has featured Spyres on my favorite classical vocal disks of the past two years. First came Amici e Rivali, his delicious all-Rossini collaboration with Lawrence Brownlee, followed by Baritenor, a remarkable survey of familiar tenor and baritone arias. Even though we’re not yet into May, I feel sure that Contra-Tenor will land on top again for 2023!
I’ve lost count many times I’ve since replayed its 14 arias which span nearly a century—from Lully’s 1682 Persée to Piccinni’s Roland which premiered in 1778. Unlike many listeners coming to this recording, I’d previously heard nine of them, yet all felt as if I was hearing them for the first time.
While stacks and stacks of CDs feature sopranos, mezzos and countertenors tackling music from these years, there have been relatively few by tenors. Most have been devoted to works composed for a particular singer, like Kobie van Rensburg and Allan Clayton’s disks devoted to John Beard, a Handel favorites.
Anibale Pio Fabri, another Handel star, has been saluted first by Marco Angioloni, and recently Jorge Navarro Colorado has gone into the studio for Arias for Ballino (Fabri’s nickname) which awaits release. Belgian Reinoud van Mechelen’s trio of recordings revive Dumesny, Jéliote and Legros, Lully, Rameau and Gluck’s leading tenors, respectively.
In his learned liner note, Spyres invokes many of these 17th and 18th century singers who were variously called haute-contre, taille, tenor-bass, contreténor, Spieltenor and even tenore assoluto. In assembling this follow-up to Baritenor, Spyres has chosen arias that demonstrate that the famous sopranos and castrati we’re familiar were in fact rivaled by high-voiced “intact” males with enormous ranges who too tackled jaw-dropping coloratura.
Contra-tenor’s 14 arias arrive in nearly chronological order cunningly arranged to slowly seduce us. A light, very short Lully ariette is followed by its inviting Passacaille, the disc’s only instrumental excerpt. We then jump over 40 years to fiery Bajazet from Handel’s Tamerlano; his vigorous, low-lying
laying scene might have easily fit onto the Baritenor collection, as could the piece from Vivaldi’s Artabano.
But little in these strongly characterized pieces by familiar composers prepares the listener for what’s next: a string of five rare bravura arias that will surely leave you breathless marveling at Spyres’s seemingly endless breath.
If these pieces by Porpora, Sarro, or Galuppi aren’t already dizzyingly florid, Spyres adds wild da capo ornaments that in a split-second leap from high to low which he dances through as freely if he were singing “Caro mio ben.” After listening to far too many Don Ottavios labor through “Il mio tesoro,” it’s impossible not to smile with delight as he tosses off Vinci’s “Si sgomenti alle sue pene” with near-impudent ease.
Being familiar with Antonio Florio’s recording of Latilla’s La Finta Cameriera, a charming opera buffa, I was unprepared for an aria from the composer’s Siroe, an opera seria set to one of Metastasio’s most popular libretti. A video released by Warner Classics of Spyres recording “Se il mio paterno amore” shows him barely breaking a sweat as he races through some of the craziest fioritura I’ve ever heard.
In 2011 Spyres tackled the title role in Mazzoni’s Antigono, an opera whose premiere was canceled due to the devastating 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Dynamic released a worthwhile live recording of its modern revival starring Spyres. Even better than on the older CD, his brilliant new studio reading of “Tu m’involasti” ends with a risky, nearly three-octave drop from what sounds like a high F.
After the over-the-top excess (?) of Latilla and Mazzoni, Gluck’s reforms feel almost necessary. The ending of the 1774 tenor version of “Che faro senza Euridice” differs considerably from its 1762 original, written for a castrato. The vocal line rises in the repeat of the A section to a heartrending climax which Spyres vividly embraces.
Throughout Contra-Tenor, conductor Francesco Corti chooses very fleet tempi that Spyres handles with brio, but they take “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” quite slowly. Initially, this choice seemed like a mistake, but repeated listening has convinced me of its stark effectiveness. The aria slowly builds in intensity, and Spyres’s Orphée is nearly overcome with grief by the end of the middle section before building toward a moving conclusion.
Rather than conclude with Gluck and Mozart, Contra-Tenor reminds us that wild vocal acrobatics hadn’t yet disappeared in the 1770s. Piccinni’s “En butte aux fureurs de l’orage” provides Spyres with one more opportunity to thrill us with ever-more elaborate coloratura which he tosses off with stylish élan.
Contra-Tenor becomes even more impressive when one notes that it was recorded in September 2020 between the August and October Baritenor sessions. Unlike Maria Callas who claimed, “I cannot switch my voice. My voice is not like an elevator going up and down,” Michael Spyres must be an Otis-tenor!
The supreme example on the CD occurs when. after a bushel of Italian fireworks, Spyres scampers light as air through Neptune’s beguiling “Cessez de ravager la terre” from Rameau’s Naïs. Brownlee recently had a big success in Paris as the water nymph Platée, why not Spyres next?
Though more than two-and-a-half years have passed since the CD was recorded, and Spyres has since sung lots of Don Josés and even taken on one act of Tristan und Isolde, he will be reuniting next month with Corti and Il Pomo d’Oro for a four-city tour for which he’s programmed nine of his Contra-Tenor arias including the Latilla and Mazzoni.
Unfortunately I’ll be missing those concerts in Montpellier, London, Antwerp and Berlin, but Contra-Tenor has joined Franco Fagioli’s Caffarelli and Ann Hallenberg’s Carnevale 1729 as irresistible baroque vocal-feasts that I will continue to listen to again and again.