Michael Spyres, whose flexible voice has seen him dubbed a ‘baritenor’, is nothing if not adventurous. As a prelude to his 2024 Bayreuth debut singing Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersingers von Nürnberg, the American singer decided to investigate the music that inspired Wagner during his childhood in Leipzig and Dresden and on through the lean years in Paris. The result is In the Shadows, an eclectic blend of the familiar and the intriguingly obscure, stylishly accompanied by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques.

The album opens, perhaps surprisingly with an aria by Méhul. It turns out Wagner himself referenced Joseph as a work that deepened his awareness of how music could propel drama. Champs paternels is a handsome aria with a dramatic second half which is tucked into with relish by Les Talens Lyriques’ period forces. Spyres despatches the notes with an easy elegance giving way to a compelling urgency.

Florestan’s Gott! Welch Dunkel hier puts us on a more obvious Wagnerian footing with Rousset finding plenty of bite in Beethoven’s lengthy introduction. Spyres savours every word, building to an impassioned climax with top notes refreshingly secure. Similar virtues inform Max’s Nein, länger trag ich nicht from Der Freischütz, one of the spook-haunted operas that fired the boy Wagner’s imagination. Another childhood hero was Marschner, hence a warmly lyrical account of Gönne mir ein Wort der Liebe from that composer’s once popular Hans Heiling.

Wagner’s passing enthusiasm for Italian bel canto is best represented by Meco all’Altar di Venere from Bellini’s Norma which exploits Spyres’ firm lower register as well as his ability to showboat above the stave. Rossini’s Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra might not have topped any list of Wagner’s, but Leicester’s demandingly wide-ranging aria receives a tour de force reading from all concerned leading to a hair-raising conclusion. A ravishing aria from Meyerbeer’s Il Crociato in Egitto – with some ripe low notes – is a delicious touch, no doubt ensuring the notoriously antisemitic Wagner will be turning in his grave.

Besides Meyerbeer, grand opera, which Wagner came to despise, is represented by arias from Auber’s once influential La Muette de Portici and Spontini’s Agnes Von Hohenstaufen. The first, Spectacle affreux, receives a blazing reading, while the latter, the moody Der Strom wälzt ruhig seine dunklen Wogen, reminds us of how Spontini spanned the transition from Gluck to Berlioz.

And so, to the great man himself, whose early style is sketched here in arias from Die Feen (unproduced in his lifetime), Rienzi and Lohengrin. The wonderfully theatrical Wo find ich dich, wo wird mir Trost shows the 19-year-old composer thoroughly steeped in the language of Weber. It’s a fine aria and subtly sung. Rienzi’s prayer is fondly done, the long lines magically spun, the period colours especially warm. Finally, an ethereal rendition of Mein lieber Schwan makes you long to hear Spyres in the title role and for a recording on original instruments.

Just occasionally the singer feels a little stretched – vocal chameleon though he is, pulling off this many styles across one set of recording sessions is a huge ask – but on the whole In the Shadows is a remarkable achievement.

Listen on Apple Music

Title: In the Shadows
Works: Arias by Beethoven, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Wagner et al.
Performers: Michael Spyres baritenor, Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset
Label: Erato 5419787982

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