Tenor Lawrence Brownlee and bass-baritone Eric Owens, friends for two decades, gave an open-hearted performance on a straight-ahead program of traditional arias and American fare at their duo recital Thursday night. Presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series at the Folly Theater, these international opera stars, along with pianist Craig Terry, were a pleasure to witness as a testimony to friendship and artistry.
The musicians substituted for the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Choir, who canceled earlier this season because of political unrest in South Africa.
A selection of arias formed the first half of the show, with Brownlee and Owens trading solo roles and pairing for a few choice duets, switching places and mood for each.
Owens thunderously transitioned from anger to remorse in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Così dunque tradisci.” Brownlee’s opening piece was the uplifting “Ah! Mes amis, quel jour de fête!” from Gaetano Donizetti’s “La fille du regiment.” His ringing tenor and energetic style served the piece well; his glance and big, wide-eyed smile included the whole audience in “O my friends.”
In casual contrast, Owens gave a shrug and smile to Terry to start Giuseppe Verdi’s dark, robust “Infelice! E tuo credevi.”
Together, and with a fun bit of acting, they performed as the naive Nemorino and duplicitous Dulcamara from Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore.” Brownlee transitioned to melancholy for a beautiful “Una furtiva lagrima,” including a tasteful, perfectly placed cadenza, followed by Owens, defiant and furious, in “Le veau d’or” from Charles Gounod’s “Faust.”
They ended the segment with two selections from Georges Bizet’s “Les Pêcheurs de Perles.” Terry’s playing was zephyrous, while Brownlee’s tone changed from tempestuous to soothing in an enchanting “Je crois entendre encore.” They finished together on “Au fond du temple saint,” an ode to friendship, taking bows after hugs and handshakes all around.
The second portion was a variety of American works: traditional spirituals, pop songs from the early 20th century and gospel numbers.
Brownlee sang “All Night All Day,” nicknamed “Caleb’s Song” in honor of his son, with an especially sweet, wordless verse, prayerful pure melody. In “Deep River,” Owens was mournful, yet firm; “Come by Here, Good Lord” followed, with an exuberant Terry and flashy finish from Brownlee. Owens’ range and control of dynamics served a defining rendition of “Give Me Jesus.” The segment ended with the duo on “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
The segment of pop tunes, lushly arranged by Terry, featured more duo work, starting with a big flourish in Harold Vicars’ “Song of Songs.” Brownlee’s “Lulu’s Back in Town” was fun, as was the cheeky duo version of Frank Loesser’s “Dolores.” Owens offered a heartfelt performance on the saccharine “Lollipops and Roses,” and the segment ended with the duo trading lines for Vincent Youmans’ “Through the Years.”
The concert ended in high spirits with a set of gospel tunes, Brownlee on the lead in “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired” and Owens on countermelody singing to “joy in my soul.” Owens again showed off his spectacular, dynamic control in “Peace Be Still.” The up-tempo “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” with Owens clapping off beats, was a joyous praise break.
“We’ll leave you with this, it’s always nice,” said Owens for their encore of “This Little Light of Mine,” a tender, sincere conclusion to a special evening and wholly enjoyable performance by friends.