Vocal categories are like shoe sizes: approximations, no guarantee of a perfect fit. Customarily, opera fanatics distinguish among tenors, baritones, basses, and switch-hitting “bass-baritones.” What, though, is a baritenor?
In our time, the term has been synonymous with Plácido Domingo as he traded down from Verdi’s Otello, Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, Canio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, and so on, to the lower-lying likes of Verdi’s Macbeth, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, Athanël in Massenet’s Thaïs, etc. With the new recital disc Baritenor, the learned and virtuosic Michael Spyres aims to restore the coinage to a much broader and more fascinating context.
His playlist of an astonishing 18 tracks ranges from high-flying numbers few baritones would attempt in public to rolling cantilenas few tenors could hope to make sing. Figaro’s rapid-fire entrance aria from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia is here, a baritone showpiece if ever there was one, the high notes pinging with joie de vivre in a way they don’t in Domingo’s famous recording from his heyday as a tenor. Led by the Slovenian conductor Marko Letonja, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg launches into each number as if it were the album’s hit single. That verve marks the singing, too, though Spyres is too much the artist to sell, sell, sell. Here is a showman who lets the music blossom.
In crisp liner notes, Spyres aligns himself with historic mavericks whose exceptional talents redefined composers’ ideas of what one man’s voice could do. Some identified as tenors, some as baritones. Some fell into the in-between category of “baryton-Martin,” neither fish nor fowl. The way Spyres sees it, these heroes of his were all voice-type-fluid, and theirs is the mantle to which he aspires.
The sheer stylistic variety of his program dazzles, and the juxtapositions astonish. From Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, there’s Tonio’s bubbling “Ah, mes amis,” its nine high C’s popping like corks off so many bottles of Veuve Clicquot. From Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, there’s another Tonio’s “Prologue,” steeped in empathic melancholy. There’s Mozart at his most showy (“Fuor del mar,” from Idomeneo) and at his most unassuming (Don Giovanni’s serenade). There’s prime Verdi, and Wagner in numinous French, alongside the stirring Napoleonic rhetoric of Méhul and Spontini.
If you have time for just one track, make it the quixotic ballad of Kleinzach from Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, in which the mocking portrait of a court grotesque unaccountably swerves into romantic rapture. Could it be that of all his characters, Hoffmann is the one Spyres most closely identifies with? “Bingo!,” Spyres answered on a recent call from Paris. “Other than that, it would be a tossup between the Berlioz Faust and Candide in the Broadway musical.”
Baritenor is available on CD from Warner Classics & Erato and on all streaming platforms
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii