La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Review: Ben Heppner in Recital

Photo: Kristin Hoebermann


Ben Heppner, tenor
John Hess, piano

September 11, 2010, 4:30 pm
Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

by Joseph K. So

Since winning the Met Auditions and the Birgit Nilsson Prize in the late 1988, tenor Ben Heppner quickly rose to become the most celebrated Canadian tenor since the great Jon Vickers, specializing in the heroic tenor repertoire. He is regularly in demand in many of the major opera houses and concert halls of the world. But curiously he has sung little in his adopted home of Toronto. This past couple of seasons for example, he has sung at Covent Garden, Paris Opera, Aix en Provence, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Salzburg Festival, and Dallas Opera among others. For his last Toronto opera appearance in a complete role, one has to go back to his Canio in Pagliacci for the COC in the 1995-6 season. Our new opera house is now four years old, and the only time Heppner sang on this stage was a gala concert in the inaugural season of summer 2006. He was supposed to be the featured artist in the Diamond Anniversary Concert last fall, but illness led to his cancellation. There is speculation that Heppner will appear in one of his most celebrated roles, perhaps Tristan or Parsifal, in a future season with the COC, but this remains rumour for now. So today's "make up concert" is likely his only local appearance in the foreseeable future.

Given that today's concert coincided with the Toronto International Film Festival and Rosh Hashanah, the near sold-out opera house is a testament to his drawing power. If there is any doubt that Heppner is the most beloved Canadian classical artist, one only has to witness the waves of applause that greeted him at the beginning, and the standing ovation he received at the end, despite what can best be described as a seriously flawed recital. Singing at home has been curiously problematic for him in the past decade, so everyone had hoped that this would be a more felicitous outing for him. To be sure, there is no denying that a steady diet of the heaviest of operatic repertoires over a period of twenty years has taken its toll on his voice. The basic timbre remains attractive, and his artistry is never in doubt. But the human vocal cords are not designed to propel huge volumes of sound to the farthest reaches of the upper galleries over a heavy Wagnerian orchestra. As a result, the Heppner voice has lost some of its suppleness and technical facility over the years.

The program this afternoon consisted of songs by Grieg, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, some of the most beautiful in the repertoire - and congenial to his instrument. After a somewhat tentative opening in the first couple of songs, Heppner warmed up and delivered the pieces strongly and with his usual ingratiating timbre, a few minor glitches in intonation notwithstanding. The tessitura of the Grieg songs are not high, except for the last of the six, "Ein Traum", one of the loveliest that Grieg wrote. Heppner sang this beautifully, his top voice displaying a bloom that one is accustomed to hearing from him. He received a well deserved round of sustained applause at the end of the first group. Of the Sibelius group, particularly affecting was his attention to textual details in the famous "Flickan kom ifran sin alsklings mote", a piece often sung by women although there is a beautiful tenor version by the great Jussi Bjoerling. Also lovely was his rendition of "Svarta rosor". After the intermission came six Tchaikovsky songs, including the famous "Net, tol'ko tot, kto znal", more commonly known as "None But the Lonely Heart". Perhaps it was because Heppner had not committed the text to memory - referred self-effacingly by him as his "Soviet Block" - and relied on the score, his delivery of the Tchaikovsky group was more tentative, with a number of blemishes in intonation. He was more or less glued to the text, thus restricting his ability to communicate to the audience. But it was really in the final group of opera arias that he ran into trouble, beginning with "O souverain, o juge, o pere" from Le Cid. This is one of the tenor's favourite arias which he performs often, but on this occasion his singing was considerably below his best; the same can also be said of "Wintersturme" from Die Walkure, and the Tosti song that came after. It was unfortunate that the singer was not in good form - it really underscores the fragility of the human voice. Let's hope Heppner will be back and soon - he certainly has the audience behind him.

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