Benjamin Bernheim (tenor)
Boulevard des Italiens
Florian Sempey (baritone: Don Carlos)
Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna
Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna / Frédéric Chaslin
rec. April 2021, Teatro Auditorium Manzoni, Italy
Sung texts with English translations included
Reviewed as download from press review
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4861964 [59:38]
Paris-born Benjamin Bernheim grew up in Geneva, where he studied violin and piano before he started singing lessons at the age of 10. He joined the Opera Studio of the Opernhaus Zürich during the 2008/2009 season and became a member of the ensemble there in 2010. Gradually he has become a sought-after singer in many opera houses and his great break-through came in 2019, when he stood in for an ailing colleague at the concert and following mopping-up sessions for Bru Zane’s recording of Gounod’s Faust in a neverbefore heard pre-ur-version, which attracted much attention. Both Michael Cookson and I reviewed it very positively here at Musicweb-international (review) (review), and we both also chose it as our “Recording of the Year”. The great sensation among the soloists was Benjamin Bernheim, who was regarded as a great find, and he followed this up with his debut recital on Deutsche Grammophon within months, a disc that also was garnered with awards, including a Diapason d’Or. Two years later it’s time for a sequel with an interesting twist: arias from operas by Italian composers, either written to French librettos or later adapted for performances in France. The recital opens and ends with two examples from the latter category.
Puccini rapidly became popular in Paris after La Vie de bohème had opened at the Opéra-Comique in June 1898, only two years after the Italian premiere. The translation of the text was made by Paul Ferrier, who also was responsible for the adaptation of the following two works: Tosca in 1903 and Madama Butterfly in 1906. The latter opera was Puccini’s problem child. The premiere at La Scala in 1904 was a disaster, and Puccini withdrew it and revised it thoroughly five times, including the original version. The Paris version was the fourth one and it included an extensive revision of the text under the supervision of the composer. The new text became the future standard version and it was immediately translated back into Italian by Ricordi. Hearing it sung here by Benjamin Bernheim, beautifully and with glow, is a great pleasure. As he showed in the Faust recording and his first recital, nuances are his forte, and he savours every phrase deliciously. Cavaradossi in Tosca normally requires a heavier voice than Bernheim’s, but his reading of the first act aria is well-balanced, and he never resorts to barking, which can be tempting for too lyrical singers.
The rest of the programme comprises, as I indicated in the first paragraph, arias in original set to French librettos. Tonio in Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment should be ideal for Bernheim’s voice type and he is certainly well-equipped: his half-voice is smooth and and sensitive and his top notes are brilliant, although he shuns the second part of the aria with the nine high Cs. Occasionally he seems slightly strained, but in general this is lyric singing of the highest order. Fernand’s Ange si pur from La Favorite is also on the same level with superb legato singing. And the third Donizetti work, Dom Sébastien, a personal favourite since I first heard Caruso’s recording from 1908. Since then it has been recorded many times, fairly recently by for instance Alfredo Kraus, Jerry Hadley and Joseph Calleja. Benjamin Bernheim can stand up well against them. He has all the nuances required and he has the brilliant fortes.
Verdi is also represented here by three works. From Don Carlos we get the recitative and cavatine from the first act, lyrical and nuanced and in the cavatine he also sports a good trill. From the second act we are vouchsafed the scene with Don Carlos and Rodrigue. Both singers are involved but Florian Sempey as Rodrigue sounds grey and elderly and his tone is rather guttural, even thogh he too is careful over nuances. Jérusalem is a revised version of I Lombardi – neither of them frequent guests in the opera houses of today. Gaston’s aria is probably the best known number, and it is sung with gusto and lyricism. Les Vêpres siciliennes is another of his less successful works, but it contains enough of interesting music to motivate the occasional revival, Henri’s romance is one.
Spontini has also more or less disappeared from the stages, but 100 years ago La Vestale could still create a furore at the Metropolitan, when Rosa Ponselle and Ezio Pinza joined forces. Here we get a taster in the shape of Licinius’s aria and it whets the apetite. I wouldn’t mind seeing it revived, preferably with Benjamin Bernheim in the tenor part.
Cherubini is best remembered by Médée, a work that is still played. Ali-Baba, ou les Quarante Voleurs (based on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves) was his last opera, premiered in Paris in 1833. It was not a success and ran for five performances. Berlioz thought it was “one of the feeblest things Cherubini ever wrote”. Nadir was sung by the legendary Adolphe Nourrit, the first Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. It was revived at La Scala in 1963 with Alfredo Kraus as Nadir but was again a flop. Bernheim sings it well and the aria isn’t bad. He takes some high notes falsetto, which may well be authentic, even though Nourrit was known to sing the high notes open-throated.
Mascagni’s only real hit was Cavalleria rusticana and the only one of his numerous operas that is regularly played today. Iris and L’amico Fritz and a couple of others are occasionally played, but Amica, premiered in Monte Carlo in 1905, has never been established. It was his only French opera, and to judge from the tenor aria recorded here it might well be a forgotten masterpiece. Benjamin Bernheim’s singing is, as ever, tasteful and beautiful.
The playing and singing of the forces of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna is fully worthy of the occasion and recording and production values are up to the usual high standard one expects from Deutsche Grammophon. Benjamin Bernheim fulfils the high expectations after the previous recital, and it is a particular treat to get some real rarities in the well-composed programme. More, please!
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)
Madame Butterfly (Acte III): Air (Pinkerton)
1. Adieu, séjour fleuri [2:17]
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848)
La Fille du régiment (Acte II): Romance (Tonio)
2. Pour me rapprocher de Marie [3:21]
La Favorite (Acte IV): Cavatine (Fernand)
3. Ange si pur que dans un songe [3:23]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
Don Carlos (Acte I): Récit et Cavatine (Don Carlos)
4. Fontainebleau! forêt immense et solitaire! [2:19]
5. Je l’ai vue [2:35]
Don Carlos (Acte II): Scène et Duo (Rodrigue, Don Carlos)
6. Le voilà! C’est l’infant! – Ô mon Rodrigue! [5:55]
7. Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes [4:26]
Dom Sébastien, roi du Portugal (Acte II): Air (Dom Sébastien)
8. Seul sur la terre [5:09]
Gaspare SPONTINI (1774 – 1851)
La Vestale (Acte III): Prélude, Récitatif et Air (Licinius)
9. Prélude [1:17]
10. Qu’ai-je vu! Quells apprêts! … Julia va mourir [3:08]
Jérusalem (Acte II): Récit et Air (Gaston)
11. Lémir auprès de lui m’appelle, que dois je craindre encor? [2:39]
12. Je veux encore entendre ta voix [3:12]
Luigi CHERUBINI (1760 – 1842)
Ali-Baba, ou les Quarante Voleurs (Prologue): Prologue et Romance (Nadir)
13. C’en est donc fait, plus d’espérande! [2:39]
14. C’est de toi, ma Délie, que dépendait mon sort [4:38]
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945)
Amica (Acte I): Scène (Giorgio)
15. Amica! Vous restez à l’écart [1:48]
16. Pourquoi garder ce silence obstiné? [3:46]
Les Vêpres siciliennes (Acte IV): Romance de substitution (Henri)
17. Ô toi que j’ai chérie [3:45]
Tosca (Acte I): Air (Cavaradossi)
18. Ô de beautés égales dissemblance féconde! [2:56]