Ben and Paolo
Ben Heppner in recital
Craig Rutenberg (piano)
Ben Heppner was in Munich, all of May, for Wagner’s Lohengrin. The Canadian is said to be one of the foremost dramatic tenors performing in the world today. What many people do not realize is that Heppner, who considers himself a lyric tenor at heart, has a second big love aside from opera: Lieder, especially those of Paolo Tosti. Whenever his celebrated opera performances leave him time, Heppner tries to fit in a recital. On May 13th, Munich audiences at the Herkulessaal had the rare privilege to hear Heppner singing Tosti, which is an experience like taking a bath in liquid sky.
The recital was cleverly structured, being divided into four separate parts, with Heppner performing the Lieder of four composers in four different languages. The first segment were Six Lieder by Edvard Grieg (op. 48). He opened with Gruss, text by Heine. The second Lied, Dereinst, Gedanke mein showed Heppner’s magnificent colors as he sang rounded and dark one moment and softly with a warm touch the next. Hearing him, one was truly reminded of a clear mountain lake somewhere in Grieg’s homeland. Exceptional was also Heppner’s impeccable German pronunciation as he moved on through Grieg’s works, receiving splendid applause mid-way after singing Lauf der Welt when acting out the song’s funny moments with his facial mimic. Very sensitive was his “Verschwiegene Nachtigall” and “Ein Traum” was truly a dream of a performance, with a good fortissimo that was only topped by the immense applause that accompanied the end of the first quarter.
Next, Heppner moved on to Sibelius, where it should be mentioned that he not only sang all seven Lieder by heart but that he also happened to sing them in Swedish. Heppner’s facial expressions were able to convey the mood of the songs even though nobody in the audience understood the words. The Lied Flickan kom ifran sin aesklings moete (Girl came from meeting with her beloved) was a welcome vehicle for Heppner to display a Lohengrin dramatic touch and it was where, for the first time, one really noticed that he is an opera singer as he acted the piece as much as he sang it. The dramatic aspects of a Wagner opera performance were unmistakably present. Technically impeccably sung was Saef, Saef, Susa (Reed, Reed, Rustle), which had some dramatic but clear piano and pianissimo parts, evoking images of a disdain as a fair maiden drowns herself among the reeds. Svarta Rosor (Black Roses) concluded the Sibelius segment and was followed by immense applause. The audience was, for the first time, officially allowed to clap and their clapping was supported by feet stomping, yelling, and exclamations of delight. They loved Heppner and had no qualms about showing it. Heppner took the hand of his accompanist, Craig Rutenberg, and together with his own raised it up in the air. The two men stood like two heavy weight boxing champions while the audience went mad with delight.
During the break that followed, audience members could be overheard talking about the performance and it became clear that many professional singers had come to attend the recital, hoping that some of Heppner’s brilliance might rub off on them. Excitement spread like wildfire when the bell rang for the second half of the recital. It was in this half that Heppner was going to perform Tosti and nearly everyone present had bought the Canadian’s best-selling Tosti CD and was now looking forward to hear him sing some of it in person.
First, though, the audience sat through six Tschaikowski Lieder, all sung in Russian and it was here that Heppner, for the first time, referred to the score as he sang, in a charming, not always flawless, pas-de-deux with the complicated Russian language. It was interesting to note that, as the recital advanced, so did the tempi and pitch of the pieces as they became increasingly higher and faster. The third Lied of this segment, Nam Swjosdy Krotkie Sijali (The tender stars shine for us) was sung with such a lyric quality that one really was left to wonder why this man is known as a dramatic tenor, for he is clearly both. At the end of the last Tchaikovski Lied, Denj li Zarit, Heppner showed that he is not a “tenor star” who thinks of himself as something better. There is a fairly long piano part and Heppner turned toward the piano, closed his eyes and listened with abandon, letting the music wash over him with its emotional sound. When Rutenberg had played his last note, Heppner bowed to him and then the two men stood toward the audience as thunderous applause and shouts of “bravo” greeted the end of this third segment. It remains to note that, following the performance, a Russian singer currently performing at the Bavarian State opera remarked on Heppner’s clear Russian pronunciation.
Then came the final segment that everyone had been waiting for: Tosti. Heppner’s relationship with Tosti is a special one. Considering his friendship with Puccini, some of Tosti’s songs are perhaps the closest to opera that one can find in the Lieder genre. At first glance, Tosti with his salon repertoire seems to be a light, even a “kitsch” composer, but this mistaken perception can only happen if one does not know the operatic quality of his other works, such as L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra and “In the hush of night” that spans from low D sharp to high B. The climatic high phrases that Tosti composed, when he did compose them, are always beautifully prepared.
It was through “L’alba separa.” that Heppner first became enthusiastic about Tosti and since then, this song has become so synonymous with Heppner that many people no longer think of another singer when thinking of this song. The Bel Canto orientation of Tosti’s Lieder has led to a revival of this composer who threatened to be forgotten after the war when the rise of cinema and pop culture pushed salon performances out of the way as a form of public entertainment. Part of this revival is very much thanks Heppner who, because of his love for L’alba separa, decided to explore further Tosti songs and in 2003 brought out a CD with Deutsche Grammophon, titled Ideale – Songs of Paolo Tosti. The most moving and dramatic of these Lieder on the CD also formed part of the recital: Io ti sento, which Tosti dedicated to Caruso, is a song of irresistible buoyancy with a text containing things like: “I sense you in the sun that rises over the ocean”. It has since long become a hymn to any departed loved ones in anyone’s life.
But Heppner chose to fittingly open his Tosti segment with Entra (Enter) as he came back on stage, which he exited after each completed segment. It is a song full of passionate outpouring, which Heppner sang and acted in his best operatic manner. The moment he opened his mouth for Tosti, there seemed to be an instant change in Heppner, as though he were literally becoming defrosted, making the change from colder climates to warmer lands, as he turned to the audience with open arms while he sang and played the dramatic moments of Tosti with his facial expressions and his body language. Even before the accompanist had played the final note of the first song there was thunderous applause, at a point when the audience was expected to remain silent but they were unable to contain themselves and got swept away in the emotion of the moment. People shouted “bravo” and could hardly remain in their seats. When Heppner launched into the next Song, Guitar Song from Abruzzia, the same thing happened at the end. Heppner’s performance suddenly had a much different, smoother quality and it became very clear that the real home of a tenor is in Italy for the language wraps itself around the tenor voice like a well-fitting coat. Io te siento was highly emotional, as could be expected, followed by the love-song Ideale which cannot be described as anything else than being carried forward by a piano dolce, a truly sweet piano that Heppner sang heart-felt sensitivity, followed by a splendid forte. One female member of the audience noted after the concert: “When Heppner sang this, one wishes for nothing more but to be the one he is singing to. He suddenly turns into the most beautiful man in the world because his soul shines through.”
The final song was the long-awaited “L’alba separa...” – it is a song about dying, but it is a song of such splendid operatic dramatic moments and so Puccini-like that it becomes, well and truly, the highlight of any Lieder evening. Heppner sings it with abandon, as he did on his CD, acting the text as he sings it. Audience members had tears in their eyes and the tenor himself trembled while he sang and his hands, hanging by his side, could be seen shaking with the emotional impact of this song. There were standing ovations before he had finished, and there was not one member in the audience who had not been touched by this splendid performance.
Five encores concluded the recital, which only ended when Rutenberg, sensibly, collected his notes and made it clear that it was time to go home, for the audience kept crying out for more.
For those who have missed it, rumour has it that there will be a repeat performance due to high demand, which should take place in Munich some time in September when Heppner returns.
Tess Crebbin, Sissy von Kotzebue