Album Review: Lawrence Brownlee’s ‘Allegro io son: Donizetti/Bellini’

June 25, 2018 Updated: June 25, 2018

Lawrence Brownlee is generally recognized as one of the world’s leading bel canto tenors. He was named 2017 Male Singer of the Year by both the International Opera Awards and Bachtrack.

What is surprising is that this expert in music of the early 19th century also performs contemporary works, such as Daniel Schnyder’s jazz-influenced opera “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” and the song cycle “Cycles of My Being” by Tyshawn Sorey and lyricist Terrance Hayes. Brownlee has also made wonderful recordings of spirituals with pianist Damien Sneed.

Brownlee’s latest album, “Allegro io son” (on Delos), is made up of arias by Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848) and Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835). This is technically demanding music but, as he previously demonstrated on his Grammy-nominated album, “Virtuoso Rossini Arias,” Brownlee is more than up to the demands.

Brownlee knocks out the nine high C’s in “Ah! Mes amis, quel jour de fête!” (“Ah! My friends, what a day to celebrate!”) from Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment” (“Daughter of the Regiment”) with panache, just as he did on the stage of The Metropolitan Opera. This is the aria that Luciano Pavarotti sang that led him to be dubbed “king of the high C’s.” Brownlee matches him note for note.

The title track is from a rarely performed opera, Donizetti’s “Rita,” and “Dom Sébastien” is another of Donizetti’s more obscure works. The performances here make one wonder whether the rest of the operas are this impressive.

The album also contains some familiar pieces, such as Ernesto’s Act 3 serenade “Com’ è gentil” from “Don Pasquale.” Again, Brownlee’s rendition stands comparison with any on disc, including Tito Schipa’s, which has always been my benchmark.

Similarly, while “Una furtiva lagrima” has been recorded by countless tenors, Brownlee’s recording is so beautifully sung that I didn’t feel that I would rather be listening to one of the others.

The two excerpts from “I Puritani” contain valuable contributions by three Lithuanian opera singers: soprano Viktorija Miskunaite, baritone Andrius Apsega, and bass Liudas Mikalauskas.

Brownlee receives commendable support from the Kaunas State Choir and Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra under Constantine Orbelian, an American who has become one of the leading conductors in Russia. He and the orchestra have performed and made many memorable recordings with the late baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, as well as with opera stars Renée Fleming and Sondra Radvanovsky.

The album has liner notes with an essay about the operas by music scholar George Loomis and information about the performers. Delos helpfully supplies English translations of all the pieces along with the original words.

Brownlee will show all aspects of his art on July 24 in a benefit concert at the Crypt Chapel under New York City’s Church of the Intercession (550 W. 155th St.) with pianists Jason Moran (jazz), Myra Huang (classical), and Damien Sneed (gospel). The program will include spirituals, standards, songs from Robert Schumann’s “Dichterliebe,” and a movement from “Cycles of My Being.” The ticket price covers a pre-concert wine tasting and hors d’oeuvres, and all proceeds will go to the church.

Brownlee will also perform as a guest artist at Carnegie Hall on March 30, 2019, in another fascinating concert: “Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration,” presented by Jason Moran and his wife, mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran. Appearing with them will be Pastor Smokie Norful, Crystal Dickinson, Brandon J. Dirden, Harriet Tubman: The Band, Toshi Reagon, Ava DuVernay, Imani Winds, and The Harlem Chamber Players.

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.