Tenor Lawrence Brownlee brought gorgeous sound and sparkling diction to his program of Italian and American songs at the Barns at Wolf Trap on Friday. His accompanist, pianist and Wolf Trap Opera Senior Director Kim Pensinger Witman, supplied the heart and the soul.
A 2001 Wolf Trap Opera Filene Young Artist, Brownlee has seen his career take off, as it has led to bel canto tenor roles at the Met, La Scala and other major houses around the world. But wisely, given the Barns’s intimacy, he chose mostly art songs rather than opera arias for this program. His roughly chronological tour through a smattering of the Italian repertoire, from the 17th century Torelli to the 19th century Tosti, was a model of precision, restraint and muted passion, leaving the really sensual fun to the piano.
And few do sensual as well as Witman. Under her fingers, the piano breathed and sighed. There were piano phrases that seemed so heavy that they could barely rouse themselves to move on and others that flitted off weightlessly. It was only in the duo’s fierce, air-clearing gallop through Rossini’s irrepressible “La danza” that the two seemed to share the same emotional intensity, and the audience got a brief but welcome glimpse into a more spontaneous, excitable Brownlee.
The second half of the program was full of the classic American songs that belong in the world’s great vocal repertoire: “Misty,” “The Nearness of You,” “Unforgettable” and a bunch more. Bravo to a singer of Brownlee’s stature for taking these on (several he was performing publicly for the first time). He’ll need to let go of some of his well-schooled Italian-vowel/clipped-consonant diction, however, if he really wants to put these over as idiomatically as they deserve. He has already figured this out for Anthony Newley’s “Feeling Good,” and his performance of this song, intimate and suggestive, was the high point of the evening.
His encore, Lehar’s “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” was delivered broadly and lovingly.