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When he visited here two and a half years ago, veteran Canadian tenor Ben Heppner's voice faltered during his recital and we were afraid he might have reached the end of his career.
Not so! In a return engagement to Fletcher Opera Theater on Wednesday night, in a program ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again, Heppner demonstrated why he is one of the most sought-after dramatic tenors of our time. Accompanied by pianist Craig Rutenberg, a veteran accompanist for singers and a look-alike for James Levine minus the hair, Heppner offered a program of mostly unfamiliar songs by Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and ... Sir Francesco Paulo Tosti (1846-1916; the dates in the program were wrong).
But first he warmed up the audience with a group of six folksong arrangements by Benjamin Britten. Starting with the witty "The Plough Boy" and "The Lincolnshire Poacher" and ending with the dramatic Irish "Avenging and Bright," his supple voice expressed the drama whether in a whisper or in full flower. It easily could have filled Meymandi Hall with volume to spare. His impeccable diction and body language added greatly to the mini-drama and ironies of each song.
The more than 100 songs of Jean Sibelius are sadly neglected, in part because of language difficulties. Composed around the turn of the 20th century, their texts are primarily in Swedish, the language of culture in Finland at the time. Until the latter part of the 19th century, the Finnish language was languishing in relative obscurity; in fact, in the 1870s Sibelius was a pupil in one of the first elementary schools to teach in the Finnish language. The music of the songs is delicate and intimate, very different from the Sibelius we are familiar with in the symphonies and tone poems. They are close in character to the German Lied; one of the seven Heppner sang, "Svarta rosor" (Black Rose), Op.36, No.1, bore a close resemblance musically to Schubert's "Erlkönig".
After intermission Heppner tackled six love songs by Tchaikovsky, including "Mignon's Song," Op.6. No.6, from Goethe's Faust, best known in its English version as "None but the Lonely Heart." Tchaikovsky's songs have a certain febrile sameness of text and of music, which made them the least interesting part of the program. Interestingly, all of the texts of these songs were totally genderless.
Tosti, born and trained in Italy, spent most of his professional life in England where he was celebrated as voice teacher, accompanist and composer to royalty and near-royalty. As Heppner quipped in a program note from the stage, Tosti's songs are prime encore material. But Heppner has raised them to the level of regular programming, and the five he chose fully justified the move. When performed with proper Italian panache, they work quite well. At the end of a long and demanding program, his voice as fresh as when he started, he sang them with a delight that reined in their excessive sentimentality.
As if all this were not enough, Heppner responded to the rousing applause with three generous encores. He started with an aria from Giordano's Fedora, then to even greater applause, Walther's "Prize Song" from Wagner's Die Meistersinger, a role whose interpretation made him famous. and finally, to send the reluctant audience off, he threw in the potboiler "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" from Lehár's Land of Smiles, which he started in German and switched seamlessly to English in the repeat. On their way backstage from yet another bow, Rutenberg deftly swept the music off the piano, a sign for the audience and artists to pack it in.
Before and after the concert, as well as during intermission, we overheard numerous rueful comments about the loss of the Great Artist Series. One of the NC Symphony's significant cutbacks during these lean times, we add our voices to the those wishing it a speedy return.