Tenor Lawrence Brownlee made his debut on the Delos label in March of 2014 with an album entitled Virtuoso Rossini Arias. The eight tracks on this album established his engagingly light touch to execution that could serve him just as effectively in the seria selections as in the comic ones. His well-balanced approach to the two dispositions of the bel canto style can now be found on his second album, released at the beginning of this month. The title is Allegro io son (happy am I), which is also the title track of the album, the aria sung by Beppe in Gaetano Donizetti’s comic opera Rita about the title character’s relationship with her current and former husbands. (Beppe is the current one. Rita is more than a bit of a shrew, and she married Beppe after the death of her first husband Gaspar. Beppe is happy when he learns that Gaspar is not dead after all.) Brownlee also sings two arias each from three other comic operas by Donizetti, Don Pasquale, L’elisir d’amore (the elixir of love), and La fille du régiment (the daughter of the regiment). The serious side of bel canto is represented by Donizetti’s La Favorite and Dom Sébastien, as well as two arias from Vincenzo Bellini’s I puritani.
What is important about Brownlee’s lightness of touch is that it allows him to take a nuanced approach to both comedy and tragedy. His sensitivity to the texts he sings is further enhanced by a highly effective rapport with conductor Constantine Orbelian leading the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra. These are the same conductor and orchestra that accompanied him on his Rossini album. That chemistry also extended to the quartet “A te, o cara” (to thee, dear one) from I puritani, in which Brownlee is joined by Viktorija Miskunaite, Liudas Mikalauskas, and Andrus Apsega; and Miskunaite also joins him in the “Son salvo” (I am safe) duet. (His high note is a bit forced in the duet; but, for better or worse, the “high drama” of this opera is also a bit forced.)
Such details aside, most readers will probably want to “cut to the chase” and check out Brownlee’s approach to “Una furtiva lagrima” (a furtive tear) from L’elisir. They will not be disappointed. This aria makes its mark not only through the quiet sense of revelation expressed by Nemorino but also by Donizetti’s highly effective restraint in the instrumental resources he engages. In the bel canto repertoire, this is one aria in which even the most intensely serious listener is rewarded.
The release of this album has been particularly well-timed in my home town of San Francisco. On September 28 San Francisco Opera (SFO) will begin a run of six performances of Don Pasquale, in which Brownlee will be making his SFO debut as Pasquale’s nephew Ernesto. The production will be directed by Laurent Pelly, whose comic touch in staging operas by both Rossini and Donizetti should provide just the right match for the lightness of tone that Brownlee delivers so well.