February 27, 2019

Eric Owens and Lawrence Brownlee Team Up at McCarter Theatre

By Nancy Plum

The giants of the opera world do not have much time to leave their stages and create innovative and cross-cultural programs for smaller audiences, but two such titans came to McCarter Theatre Center this past weekend to perform a bit of opera, American song, and spirituals — with a whole lot of entertainment. The career of bass-baritone Eric Owens has taken him from the Metropolitan Opera to interactive recitals for incarcerated youth to the maximum-security Attica correctional facility. His roles have ranged from Wagnerian to Aristotle Onassis to the delicate Mozart classics. This season, he has turned his attention in a new direction — a multicity vocal collaboration with tenor Lawrence Brownlee, a master of the 19th-century bel canto style of singing and also a leading performer in opera houses worldwide. Owens and Brownlee have teamed up this year for a recital of solo opera arias, duets, American song, and spirituals, and brought their unique partnership to McCarter Theatre this past Sunday afternoon with a program of Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, and Bizet, as well as a journey through American music.

Owens’ roles throughout his career have often been dramatically commanding, and he started out Sunday afternoon’s recital with the scheming aria “Se vuol ballare” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, in which Figaro is determined to put one over on the Count. Owens decisively articulated the beginning recitative cleanly, ensuring that no one in the McCarter Theatre space would have trouble hearing or understanding him, and with delicate piano accompaniment provided by Craig Terry, filled the hall with a powerful and authoritative voice. Brownlee also began his portion of the recital with Mozart — the vengeful “Il mio tesoro” from Don Giovanni. Singing with a rich, bright, and forward sound, Brownlee demonstrated his expertise at conveying long vocal lines and articulating coloratura passages while maintaining Mozart’s graceful musical style.

Alternating solo arias with duets, Owens and Brownlee created an informal atmosphere in which one felt they had been invited to their house for an afternoon soiree where the performers could change the programming on a whim. Throughout the afternoon, both singers were continually in perfect synchrony with Terry’s piano accompaniment, demonstrating that Terry is equally as much a musical powerhouse as the singers. Owens seemed to enter onstage in character for each selection, singing of disillusionment and disappointment from Verdi, and leaving no doubt in Charles Gounod’s “Le veau d’or” from Faust that Satan may well have been in the house.

Showing why he is considered a master of the 19th-century bel canto style, Brownlee milked the dark lines of Donizetti’s “Una furtiva lagrima,” from L’elisir d’amore with a voice full of sadness, well matched by Terry’s dark colors and drawn-out lines from the piano. Brownlee also showed his vocal prowess in the highest register camping out on high Cs in Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment aria “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!” The two vocal artists came together in a mastery of operatic speed-singing in a duet from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, sung by with comic animation, swagger and exact timing. As with all of these operatic selections, Craig Terry found a multiplicity of colors and hues within the piano accompaniment.

As Owens and Brownlee have toured this recital nationwide, the second half of the concert has traditionally been more personal — with selections from the spiritual and gospel repertory and a set of American popular songs. In Sunday’s concert at McCarter, Craig Terry showed his range of talents as the arranger of all three American popular songs performed, as well as a set of gospel favorites. Brownlee proved himself a champion of American composer and arranger Damien Sneed, whose “Come by Here, Good Lord” demanded the highest level of jazz piano and vocal pyrotechnics. Owens presented the traditional “Give me Jesus” with a feeling of joy, even as his character’s life was drawing to a close. The two artists again came together for Terry’s spirited arrangement of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand.”

Owens made one well-received substitution in the American song set, giving the audience a regal and reflective interpretation of “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific, communicating well with the audience. Owens and Brownlee closed the performance with a set of gospel pieces, and like the great operatic preachers they were on Sunday afternoon, sent the audience on its way with musical commentary appropriate for these times in Terry’s arrangement of “This Little Light of Mine.”