In voice, style, and manner, Michael Spyres’s new Erato recital demonstrates that he is a thoroughly modern singer whose phenomenal range harks back to a much earlier age. On BariTenor, the modernity emerges in his and Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg conductor Marko Letonja’s choice of no-nonsense tempi that, in the case of Gaetano Donizetti’s daredevil “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!” (Ah, my friends, what a day to celebrate), leaves Spyres throwing out nine high Cs at breakneck, over-caffeinated speed. It also shines through in his mastery of multiple languages (Italian, German, and French), all sung with a clarity of diction and naturalness of idiom that speak of someone who thoroughly inhabits different cultures with ease.
What will appeal most strongly to music lovers is Spyres’s astounding multi-octave vocalism — an artistry that bridges centuries with its Renaissance-age mastery of multiple ranges, from baritone to high tenor. On Verdi’s classic baritone aria, “Il balen del suo sorriso” (The flash of her smile), Spyres sings with a vocal weight and beauty that, if not ultimately as refulgent or idiomatically fluid of tempo as that of baritone Sherrill Milnes with Zubin Mehta or the great Golden Age baritones Giuseppe de Luca and Riccardo Stracciari, shows that he’s a far more natural baritone than Placido Domingo. Then he shifts to Mozart’s frighteningly demanding “Fuor del mar” (Saved from the sea) from Idomeneo, and in some ways excels the fabled acoustic recording by tenor Herman Jadlowker by bringing greater vocal weight to perfect trills and coloratura.
Again and again, Spyres surprises. On the same recording in which he initially seems humorless as he barrels through Figaro’s “Largo al factotum” (Make way for the factotum) from Gioacchino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia as though dashing to catch the last BART train, he suddenly throws in multiple ridiculous voices in various vocal ranges that may leave you wondering what became of Señor Wences.
Seven tracks later, he switches gears to begin a gorgeous French version of Lohengrin’s “In fernem Land” (In a distant land) with rare spiritual elevation. Then he again switches voices and styles to sound echt Viennese in Franz Lehar’s “O Vaterland du machst bei Tag – Da geh ich zu Maxim” (Oh Fatherland, by day ... Then I go to Maxim’s) from Die lustige Witwe (The merry widow), and thoroughly French in excerpts from Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The tales of Hoffmann) and Ravel’s L’heure espagnole (The Spanish hour).
These recordings don’t necessarily supplant classic versions of some of his repertoire — you wouldn’t want to be without Richard Tauber and Lotte Lehmann in the duet from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (The dead city), Helge Roswaenge or Joseph Schmidt in an aria from Adolphe Adam’s Le postillon de Lonjumeau (The coachman of Lonjumeau), or the incomparably suave Ezio Pinza in Don Giovanni’s seductive “Deh, vieni alla finestra” (Oh, come to the window), but your head will spin nonetheless from Spyres’s mastery.
This is an extremely generous recording. A calling card for perhaps the most versatile and unique baritenor of our age, it only manages to fit 18 tracks into 85 minutes by ruthlessly cutting some off as soon as they end and minimizing breaks between tracks. So much comes at you so fast that Spyres’ breathtaking presentations can seem relentless. But if you can keep up with him, you soon discover that where most other singers take a breath, he keeps going at least halfway through the next phrase. Were Irish tenor John McCormack — he of the long-breathed lines in Mozart’s “Il mio tesoro” from Don Giovanni — alive, he would surely acknowledge that in Spyres, he has met his match.
Admittedly, there are some quirks, especially in a haute-voiced high E-flat that, in this live video of Adam’s famed aria, causes more than a few giggles. Is this a case of modern-day androgyny, of a baritenor with a counter-tenor’s high extension, or what? Decide for yourself. If you’re into streaming, the high-resolution MQA version on Tidal sounds spectacular. In whatever way(s) you chose to listen, listen you must.