Three days after he closed the Metropolitan Opera’s season in “I Puritani,” Lawrence Brownlee came to Lisner Auditorium on Tuesday night to give a song recital for Vocal Arts DC. It took him a little while to get his bearings. Brownlee is a tenor of uncommon ability, with a warm, malleable voice that sounded, on Tuesday, slightly husky. He can tick off the whole checklist of attainments that are necessary for an international career: fluid technique; ability to speak and sing idiomatically in the major European languages; a friendly stage manner with just enough showmanship to keep things interesting; and, importantly for tenors, a bunch of ringing top notes. And he has been singing in Washington for years: In addition to Vocal Arts, he has appeared at Wolf Trap, the Washington Concert Opera, the Vocal Arts Society and the Washington National Opera.
But heart, too, is necessary to bring a recital across. Brownlee has lots of heart, but it took him a couple of sets to connect it fully to his singing. After he did, particularly in the second half of the program, his recital was a knockout.
The opera stage offers a singer not only a platform but also a role in which to take refuge: You are pretending to be someone else. A recitalist, by contrast, has to reach into himself, and for the first sets on the program — four Verdi songs and five songs by Poulenc — Brownlee seemed to be missing the safety of another character. Or perhaps it was I who was missing it, because I heard him in “Puritani” on Saturday night and thoroughly enjoyed his beautiful performance.
The Verdi songs, by contrast, felt a little anodyne, despite his nod at comic characterization in “Lo spazzacamino.” As he moved through the Poulenc set, he started to have more moments of connection when the singing was not only accurate and lovely but also luminous, as in “Bleuet.”
The musical selections were certainly fine, as thoughtful and apparently effortless as the singing, all appealing to the ear while being less familiar than the Schubert/Strauss/arie antiche warhorse fare. The Verdi songs are not well-known, and for his German set Brownlee offered five songs by Joseph Marx, who was active in the first half of the 20th century. Those had a Straussian air with a slightly less effete affect. By the end of the Marx set, Brownlee’s voice was coming into focus.
There is a difference between getting up on stage and doing something very well and getting up on stage and delivering a performance, and that difference was illustrated by the contrast between the first and second halves of the program. That is not to say that there were not fine moments in the first half, but by the second half of the night, Brownlee had found his character. It helped that Ginastera’s “Cinco Canciones Populares Argentinas” fit his voice like the proverbial glove, bringing out the heroic ring in the upper register, while Kevin Murphy, the pianist, sent his fingers flying over the keys.
Brownlee started talking to the audience before a set of songs by the American composer Ben Moore, but this token contemporary offering needed no special advocacy. These songs, settings of Yeats and Joyce poems, were immediately attractive to lovers of traditional art song — gentle, melodious and in no way trailblazing — and Brownlee sang them so as to make them shine.
If there was no specific character involved in the evening, there was a gentle narrative arc of self-revelation as Brownlee circled closer and closer to home, began making remarks from the stage, got to the English language with the Moore set and, finally, a set of the spirituals that were a part of his own musical heritage (he said he started singing in church, reluctantly, as a child). Spirituals conclude many an American singer’s concert, but they are not often presented as an artistic as well as a popular highlight: These, however, in arresting and sometimes bizarre arrangements by Damien Sneed, had flickers of channeling jazz and Ives as well as more familiar churchlike chords.
“Every Time I Feel the Spirit” had the most unusual accompaniment, but Brownlee took off into such a flight of vocal virtuosity that it overshadowed anything Murphy was doing on the keyboard. Before “All Night, All Day,” he spoke of his 3-year-old son, Caleb, who is on the autism spectrum, and his hope that angels were watching over his child. He proceeded to sing runs of achingly sweet falsettos interspersed with ringing phrases that wrung the heart.
Brownlee offered three encores (“You’re making me work for my supper,” he joked to the audience): Schubert’s “Der Jungling an der Quelle,” the first classical art song he ever sang; “Be My Love,” sung with the light ardor of a 1930s radio tenor; and, finally, “Il mio tesoro” from “Don Giovanni,” just to remind everyone that he has opera chops. It was beautifully sung, and felt, at this point in the evening, like a notable return to formality, the singer politely pulling away from his audience and back into his own life.