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American scores in role that made Pavarotti famous

In the role that shot Luciano Pavarotti to superstardom, tenor Lawrence Brownlee tossed nine high Cs to a Metropolitan Opera audience — in less than one minute.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the role that shot Luciano Pavarotti to superstardom, tenor Lawrence Brownlee tossed nine high Cs to a Metropolitan Opera audience — in less than one minute.

The 39-year-old American pulled it off joyfully Monday on the season opening night of Gaetano Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment" ("The Daughter of the Regiment").

The fiendish notes seemed a breeze for Brownlee, despite the inherent element of risk. He flies into the vocal stratosphere on his teacher's advice: Imagine you're in a parachute, soft-landing on the high Cs from above.

Still, in Donizetti's high-jinx 1840 comic opera, the Cs have to be what the tenor calls "nine bull's-eyes." Others have called them the "Mount Everest for tenors" — a feat Brownlee last performed on a Moscow stage in September.

He plays Tonio, an Austrian peasant who falls hopelessly in love with a tomboyish young woman — an orphan raised by invading French soldiers.

As Marie, soprano Nino Machaidze produced coloratura fireworks amid the slapstick humor of a romantic plot that requires her to show off her considerable skill as a clown with a broken heart. The spectacular vocal agility of the spunky native of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, still in her 20s, has made her a fast-rising international star.

The Laurent Pelly production also features a longtime star soprano from New Zealand, Kiri Te Kanawa, in the non-singing cameo role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp, whose meddling complicates life for the passionate pair.

Te Kanawa, 67, couldn't resist offering the audience a snippet of her famed singing voice — gracing Donizetti's score with Puccini's "O fior del giorno" from the opera "Edgar," about a woman in love walking through a flower-filled village square. It was a sort of vocal bouquet thrown to the singer's still adoring fans.

Yves Abel conducted the Met orchestra with buoyant energy that embraced the exquisite vocal pyrotechnics.

Brownlee's high Cs popped up in Tonio's exuberant aria "Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fete!" ("Ah, my friends, what a day for celebrating!") — greeted by a long, roaring ovation. His other showstopper was "Pour me rapprocher de Marie" ("To get close to Marie"), in which he declares that she's his whole life — an aria delivered as a rich, seamless musical act of love that digs deeper than a series of lustrous high notes.

Brownlee, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, is not new to the Met stage.

His career got a jump start when he won the finals of the Met's National Council Auditions a decade ago, going on to become a globally prized tenor in the "bel canto" repertoire — meaning beautiful singing in Italian, to describe technically challenging works like Gioachino Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" that has become Brownlee's calling card.

The tenor appeared at the Met last season with soprano Renee Fleming in Rossini's "Armida."

He sang the role of Tonio at the house one other time, replacing Juan Diego Florez almost two years ago on a few hours' notice when the Peruvian tenor fell ill.

Pavarotti took on Tonio in 1972, opposite soprano Joan Sutherland, winning accolades for his nine high Cs. Donizetti actually wrote only eight, but it's now standard practice for tenors to add a final, ringing ninth one.

The current hit production, which updates the action from Napoleonic times to World War I, runs through Jan. 6.