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Seen and Heard Internation Recital Review



BEN HEPPNER RECITAL: Songs by Grieg, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Tosti, Ben Hepper, tenor; Craig Rutenberg, piano, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, January 16, 2005 (HS)



Ben Heppner hit the opera scene like a thunderbolt in the 1990s, singing Wagnerian heldentenor roles such as Walther in Die Meistersinger and Tristan in Tristan und Isolde with preternatural ease. Nothing seemed to faze him, not the long-breathed melisma of Britten's music for Peter Grimes nor the daunting dramatic passages of Wagner's Lohengrin.


Only a year ago, however, the opera world was buzzing over the Canadian singer's apparent flameout. Famously, he couldn't seem to get through a performance without cracking on a high note, sometimes on not-so-high notes. He's done, whispered the singer-followers. Such a shame.


Well, to paraphrase Samuel Clemens, reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated, or at least premature. The problem, it turned out, was a rare reaction to an allergy medication. The medicine was drying out his throat and the vocal cords. It took a while for Heppner to rebuild his voice, but today, he is singing gloriously. If anything, the sound has more squillo, that pointedly sharp focus, than ever, and he is a mature singer who has learned to shape a phrase with delicacy.


This all was apparent in a San Francisco recital Sunday that followed a well regarded series of performances as Verdi's Otello at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Heppner has a welcome directness in his stage presence, a seriousness of purpose. Mutton chop sideburns make him look like an Irish tenor from the turn of the last century, but the voice is something else. For a singer who does so well in heldentenor roles, it's not a classic clarion but more of a big, round, lyric sound. There is never a sense of pushing, even when it rises to high B's and C's. It just sails out there like a big schooner cutting through the water, sails taut.


When he scales the voice back, as he did in the famous Tchaikovsky song popularly known as "None But the Lonely Heart," it has a soft glow, a coziness that draws a listener in. When he opens it out, as in the ringing high B's of the several Tosti songs that concluded the program, it still has that glow, no hint of harshness, and it maintains its beauty. He sustains phrases with intelligence and clarity, aiming for simple communication rather than artiness. If he occasionally stretched phrases past the point where he could support the final few seconds as firmly as one could want, that was a small price for the sheer beauty of the rest.


The contributions of accompanist Craig Rutenberg cannot be underestimated. This pianist plays with a buoyant pulse, and pinpoint delicacy without ever sounding mannered, and with a big-voiced singer next to him can let the fortes ring out without overpowering the sound.


The program consisted of songs that emphasize the beauty of Heppner's sound and straightforward narrative. The recital opened with a series of Grieg songs based on German romantic poems, achieving a remarkable sense of suspension of time in "Lauf der Welt" (Uhland) and a rush of triumph in "Ein Traum." In "Die verschwiegene Nachtigall," the change of timbre on "Tanderadei," the recurring onomatopoeia sound of the nightingale, was especially beautiful. In the Sibelius songs that followed, the voice had a chance to soar mightily in "Var det en dram?" (Did I just dream?) and the final stanza of "Sverta rosor" (Black roses).


The Tchaikovsky set gave Heppner more leeway for coloring the phrases, but he used these effects sparingly, underlining the Russian sense of pain amidst the love and passion. The final set, a lovely bunch of unbuttoned Tosti songs, gave Heppner a chance to step up and deliver big, sweeping show-off phrases, which he dispatched with plenty of flair but enough taste to keep them from sounding cheap. This was tenorissimo stuff, especially in the soaring phrases of "Io ti sento" and impressively sustained final high notes of "ideale" and "L'alba separa dalla luce l'ombra."


As often happens, the encores were even more fun and more impressive. Even Heppner seemed more at ease as he unleashed a bigger and fuller Italianate sound in "Amor ti vieta," the arietta from Fedora, than the leggiero one usually hears, but it was thrilling. Introducing Walther's "Prize Song" from Die Meistersinger (the climax of his signature role), he noted, "You usually have to wait five hours to get to this in the opera house," then proceeded to sing it with tremendous warmth and power, the top soaring free.


Then came Lehar's "Dein ist meine ganzes herz," some of the most gorgeous schmaltz ever written for tenor, and finally, appropriately enough for a program that had several songs referring to roses, a refined and intimate "Roses Are Shining in Picardy" (Wood) showed remarkable seamlessness of phrasing.


With a voice at the top of its game, Heppner delivered a rewarding and satisfying two hours of music. The man is back.



Harvey Steiman




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