Sunday's Houston Grand Opera matinee performance of Donizetti's La Favorite was notable for any number of reasons (beautiful music in a little performed opera, great singing all round) — but the topper had to be a last minute substitution for international superstar Lawrence Brownlee who was to sing the lead role of Fernand.
Instead, tenor Michael Spyres (well known for his bel canto roles) stood at a podium to the side of the stage and sang, while Katrina Bachus, the Assistant Director for the production, walked the role of the man who falls in love with and marries Leonor, before finding out she is the king's mistress. Spyres more than held his own, deftly handling the notes and the sheets of music in front of him, while showing off sweet tones and impressive range.
As the audience was told right before the performance, HGO flew in Spyres from New York City to make his debut at Houston Grand Opera after the ailing Brownlee said he was a no-go for Sunday's 2 p.m. performance.
Thrilled to be making my @HouGrandOpera debut today! 24hrs ago I was called on my way to Damnation de Faust @MetOpera to fly to Houston to sing Fernand in La Favorite. My dear friend @Brownleetenor is ill so send him all your good vibes! Get well soon my belcanto brother!!!— Michael Spyres (@Spikelmyers) January 26, 2020
The surprise wasn't so much that Brownlee wasn't feeling well — on Saturday our opera critic D.L. Groover noted in his review of Friday's opening night performance that Brownlee was not in full voice and that HGO's Managing Director Perryn Leech explained to the audience during the intermission that our January weather wasn't doing Brownlee any favors.
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But with the same can-do attitude that carried HGO through continuous performances in the wake of Hurricane Harvey when its home the Wortham Center was knocked out of commission and the opera operated out of the third floor of the George R. Brown for more than a year, the HGO powers-that-be made sure the show did go on.
We didn't spot anyone stomping out in anger at the change and in fact, Spryes and Bachus received some of the biggest applause of the evening at curtain time. And when mezzo-soprano and lead Jamie Barton (Leonor) came out she planted a kiss on each of their cheeks.
HGO officials said they expect Brownlee back for the next performance, which will be Saturday, February 1.
As for us, while sending best wishes for a speedy recovery Brownlee's way, let us say that we'll be glad to see Spyres back any time Houston Grand Opera can book him. Next time, of course, acting as well as singing.