A bel canto feast at Cadogan Hall

In the nineteenth century, tenor Gilbert Duprez and soprano Julie
Dorus-Gras were two of the most celebrated practitioners of the art. Duprez
has been mythologised as the man who, during his debut in Paris in June
1837 as Arnoldo in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, established the
‘modern’ tenor technique. Retaining a full-bodied tone, the chest voice,
all the way up to the tenor’s high C, Duprez stunned audiences more used to
the lighter voix mixte or head voice employed by the leading
singers of the day, such as Nourrit or Bassini. So revolutionary was his
technique, that in 1840 two French doctors, Paul Diday and Joseph
PÈtrequin, submitted a scientific report to the AcadÈmie des Sciences – ‘MÈmoire sur une nouvelle espËce de voix
chantÈe’ – describing Duprez’s timbre and laryngeal posture which
they called ‘the voix sombrÈe ou couverte’ (dark or covered voice).

Julie Dorus-Gras was a leading prima donna in Paris during the 1830s and
1840s, described as by a journalist in the Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris (June 1839) as having a voice
‘of the most beautiful quality, with great flexibility and extraordinary
range’: ‘Since poor Malibran, we have not heard a singer so completely
mistress of her voice, which taste and sentiment guide and which practice
improves every day.’ Another commented, in May 1841, ‘Take for granted that
she was perfect and you will save me as well as yourself the boredom of a
lot of clichÈs and repetition.’

This Bastille Day programme at the Cadogan Hall presented mainly French
arias made famous by those two leading figures of the nineteenth-century
French and Italian operatic scene and drawn from both the familiar and rare
ends of the repertoire. American tenor Michael Spyres and Lebanese-Canadian
soprano Joyce El-Khoury gave superb performances that surely confirmed that
they can equal the legendary achievements and artistry of their

Spyres and El-Khoury’s former Opera Rara partnership – as Polyeucte and
Pauline in Donizetti’s Les Martyrs at the

Royal Festival Hall

in late 2014 – won accolades, as did the subsequent


of the opera, released the following year. Reviewing the latter, I admired
Spyres’ mastery ‘of the full range of bel canto gestures — not merely its
show-stopping audacity’ and noted that El-Khoury ‘matches Spyres for
passion and power’, judgements which were more than confirmed on this

At Cadogan Hall, Spyres used his astonishing range, unwaveringly steady
tone and darker, baritonal hue in the lower realms to convey all of
Othello’s stature, dignity and sensitivity in the Moor’s entrance cavatina,
‘Venise, Ù ma patrie, from Rossini’s Othello. Conductor Carlo
Rizzi immediately showed his command of this repertoire too, drawing
shapely phrasing from the members of the HallÈ and encouraging the
instrumental melodies and solos – from clarinet, flute, horn – to engage
expressively with the voice. Similarly, in the recitative and air, ‘Dans
ces lieux … Quand renaÓtra’, from HalÈvy’s seldom heard Guido et GinÈvra, we enjoyed a superbly expressive trumpet solo
and some lovely quiet horn playing, in partnership with the harp, as Guido
mourned at GinÈvra’s tomb. The recitative was truly focused and engaging,
and Spyres and Rizzi were responsive to the harmonic structure, the move to
the major key pushing the music forward, and the voice ever relaxed as the
repeating cadential patterns built towards the stirring close.

In Auber’s air, ‘Ils s’Èloignent … Gentille fÈe’ (Le Lac des fees)
Spyres showed his dramatic nous and presence. Albert and his fellow
students find an enchanted lake and when the swans are transformed into
fairies he promptly falls in love with one, ZÈÔla. The recitative which
commences this aria was tense and urgent, as Albert watches his friends
depart and questions the veracity of his vision and love, but when the
besotted student addressed the magical object of his infatuation, the line
was beautifully gentle, clean and calm. This boy was truly spellbound, but
he didn’t stay transfixed for long: infused with delirium, Albert cries out
to the immortal fairy to set him alight so that he may expire in her
embrace! Spyres’ ability to switch almost instantly from enthrallment to
ecstasy was remarkable; his tenor was so buoyant as he leapt through the
excited phrases that he seemed to strive for the stratosphere in the
closing section. And, the tenor had the stamina to repeatedly reproduce
such feats throughout the evening, without the least hint of strain or
marring of the firm, coppery sound.

El-Khoury was announced to be suffering from a summer cold and perhaps this
occasionally hindered the full flow of the longest legato lines or affected
her ability to control the quietest pianissimos. But, so rich and shining
is El-Khoury’s voice that one barely noticed. And, she can certainly
establish a dramatic mood and context in a whisker. The opening of
Isabelle’s Act 4 cavatina, ‘Robert, toi que j’aime’, from Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable may not have had quite the necessary steadiness
of line, but each textual phrase was imbued with meaning as Isabelle
pleaded with Robert, dispossessed and dishonoured, to resist the unholy
spirits that were tempting him and to put his faith in her mortal love.

In ‘Regnava nel silenzio’ (Lucia di Lammermoor) the coloratura
passagework was as clear, and refreshing, as running spring-water and she
showed that, summer cold or not, she can withdraw the sound to the
slenderest of transcendent silver threads, and then swell and colour with
immense control. And, the vocal power and precision were matched by
El-Khoury’s dramatic perspicacity, both here and in the less well-known
entr’acte and air, ‘Jours de mon enfance’, from HÈrold’s Le PrÈ aux clercs, in which the rather slight melodic interest was
supplemented by leader Simon Blendis’ softly floating violin obbligato.

Donizetti’s Act 1 Scena e Duetto Finale from Lucia, brought
Spyres and El-Khoury together and showcased – through sweeping,
airborne phrases and easeful vocal ascents – both the singers’ supreme
mastery of this idiom and the sureness of Rizzi’s direction. But, it
was the less well-known repertory that was most intriguing and
enchanting. Guido et GinÈvra recounts an episode from
Florentine history: GinÈvra, daughter of Cosimo dei Medici, has been
poisoned by a magic veil and collapses during her marriage to the Duke
of Ferrara. She is assumed to have succumbed to the plague raging
through Florence and is buried in the Medici vault. When she awakens,
she goes into the plague-ridden city and the Act 4 ScËne et Duo
(‘Conduisez-moi … Ombre chÈrie’) depicts her reunion with Guido in the
snow-covered, bandit-controlled streets.

In the first section, for tenor alone, Spyres captured of all of
Guido’s anxiety though the voice never pushed dynamically far above the
restless pianissimo of the string tremelando. The sound of
GinÈvra’s cries, though, brought about a wonderful enrichening and
ascent. As they marvelled at the miracle of reunion, Spyres and
El-Khoury’s voices wound around one another in shining rapture, the
melodic climaxes perfectly judged. Pleading with GinÈvra to leave,
Spyres hardened his tenor a little, creating urgency, and his
incredibly high heroic declaration, ‘Je suis ton dÈfenseur!’ was
gallantly golden.

Terrific stuff. Spyres and El-Khoury left no doubt that they are worthy
heirs to a tradition. And, one can enjoy these and other bel canto thrills on two discs which will be released by Opera
Rara in September. …cho features roles associated with
Dorus-Gras and to the Donizetti, Meyerbeer and HÈrold heard on this
occasion, El-Khoury adds arias by Rossini (Guillaume Tell),
Halevy (La Juive) and Weber/Berlioz (Le Freysch¸tz).
Spyres’ Espoir offers arias from some of the works – La favorite, Verdi’s JÈrusalem – whose instrumental
numbers the HallÈ and Rizzi performed with discipline and passion at
the Cadogan Hall – as well as items from Rosmonda d’Inghilterra and Benvenuto Cellini. Both
singers duet on each other’s discs and are accompanied by Rizzi and the

Claire Seymour

Joyce El-Khoury (soprano), Michael Spyres (tenor), Carlo Rizzi

Auber – Overture to Manon Lescaut, Rossini – ‘Venise, Ù ma
patrie’ (Othello), Meyerbeer – ‘Robert, toi que j’aime’ ( Robert le diable), HalÈvy – ‘Dans ces lieux … Quant
renaÓtra’ (Guido et GinÈvra), Verdi Ballet music fromJÈrusalem, HalÈvy – ‘Conduisez-moi … Ombre chÈrie’ (Guido et GinÈvra), Donizetti – Overture to La favorite, HÈrold – ‘Jours de mon enfance’ (Le prÈ aux clercs), Auber – Ils’ s’Èloignent’ (Le lac des fÈes), Donizetti – ‘Regnava nel silenzio’ (Lucia di Lammermoor), Donizetti – ballet music from La favorite, ‘Lucia, perdona … Se ad ora inusitata’ ( Lucia di Lammermoor).

Cadogan Hall, London; Friday 14th July 2017.

image_description=Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury, Cadogan Hall
product_title= Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury, Cadogan Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury, Les Martyrs (Festival Hall, 2015)

Photo credit: Russell Duncan