While it's not easy to find duets for two tenors, Lawrence Brownlee and Michael Spyres uncovered a number of them in seven early 19th-century Rossini operas. After a video of their encore duet in 2018 at The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam went viral, they put together a groundbreaking album, Amici e Rivali, which collects over a dozen duets and trios and shines a light on the genius of Gioachino Rossini.
Listening to these tenor duets is great entertainment, and sometimes akin to watching an athletic contest. "Rossini wrote to really show off what a voice can do, [with] all the bells and whistles," says Brownlee, who researched the repertoire and found, "No one had ever compiled all of the duets and trios in one album."
Brownlee talked on Zoom about the recording, Amici e Rivali, (release date November 13, 2020) that also features mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught and tenor Xabier Anduaga.
Honoring the tenors of Rossini's time
Rossini's music is a great fit for Brownlee and Spyres, Americans well-schooled in the bel canto (literally, "beautiful music") tradition that Rossini excelled in; they're also tenors with voices much like certain voices Rossini was writing for.
"There were two tenors in particular that [Rossini] wrote for quite a bit," says Brownlee: Giovanni David, who had a very high range, like Brownlee, and Andrea Nozzari, whose lower voice was likely more similar to that of Michael Spyres.
The album includes arias, duets, and trios from seven operas composed between 1815 and 1826, including this lively duet from his comedy, Il barbiere di Siviglia, or The Barber of Seville.
The Mastery of Rossini
Brownlee says while people know Barber of Seville, Cinderella, and perhaps, The Italian Girl in Algiers, this album aims to "bring all of his other music to life, so people can appreciate the mastery of Rossini."
"Rossini is known for his melismatic singing and all of the fast notes and all of the trills and the coloratura.... We have high notes, close harmony and fast notes. And this is something that creates fireworks."
Rossini was also writing in an era when audiences thrilled to the idea of listening to tenors competing musically onstage. "Dueling tenors," says Brownlee, "It's kind of like one-up-manship to see who can hold [a high note] the longest or who can sing it the best. It's all in good fun."
"In La Dona del Lago - Lady of the Lake - we have dueling high c's. I sing one, Michael sings one, I sing another, he sings another, and then the mezzo-soprano gets to sing a high note too."
"We also have a tenor trio, which is even more rare than a tenor duet. We have a guy named Xabier Anduaga, a fantastic young Spanish tenor. He and Michael and I do this fantastic trio from Armida, and this is one of these opportunities where, one after another, we get a chance to sing out high notes."
Performing the music the way it was intended
The album, says Brownlee, was recorded in Verona, Italy, conducted by Italian Corrado Rovaris (who is also the music director of Opera Philadelphia).
"It was a great feeling: the fact that we were doing something that, to our knowledge, has never been done [compiling these arias, duets, and trios] ; also performing the music the way we feel it was intended to be performed."
Brownlee and Spyres are American but both speak Italian. "The entire orchestra was Italian; the language coach was Italian; the pianist and many of the other people were Italian. We felt that there was a great deal of authenticity, recording that music in that style, in Italy, with an entire Italian team. So that was the fun thing for us."
Amici e Rivali includes duets and trios from the following operas:
1 Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1816)
2-5 Riccardo e Zoraide (1818)
6-7 La Donna del Lago (1819)
8 Elisabetta Regina d'Inghilterra (1816)
9-11 Otello (1816)
12-14 Le Siege de Corinthe (1826)
15 Armida (1817)