Ben Heppner - Airs Francais (WAV)
Ben Heppner – Airs Francais (WAV)

All thanks fly to Bob

Composer: Hector Berlioz, Fromental Halevy, Jules Massenet, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle
Performer: Ben Heppner
Orchestra: London Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Myung-Whun Chung
Audio CD
SPARS Code: DDD
Number of Discs: 1
Label: Deutsche Grammophon
Size: 750 MB
Recovery: +3%
Scan: yes

Hector Berlioz
01. Les Troyens / Act 5 – No.41 Récitatif mesuré et air: “Inutiles regrets” – “Ah! quand viendra”
02. La Damnation de Faust, Op.24 / Part 4 – Scène 16. Invocation à la Nature. “Nature immense”
03. La Damnation de Faust, Op.24 / Part 3 – Scène 8. Air de Faust. “Merci, doux crépuscule!”
04. Benvenuto Cellini / Act 2 – “Seul pour lutter, seul avec mon courage”
05. Béatrice et Bénédict / Act 1 – “Ah! Je vais l’aimer”

Jacques Halévy
06. La Juive / Act 4 – “Rachel, quand du Seigneur la grâce tutélaire”

Jules Massenet
07. Sapho Pièce lyrique en 5 actes / Acte 1 – Ah, qu’il est loin, mon pays
08. Le Cid / Act 3 – O Souverain, ô juge, ô pére
09. Le Cid / Act 1 – O noble lame éticelante

Giacomo Meyerbeer
10. L’Africaine / Act 4 – “Pays merveilleux … O paradis” (sung in French) (Vasco)
11. Les Huguenots / Act 1 – Plus blanche
12. Le prophète / Act 3 – Roi du Ciel

Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle
13. La Marseillaise – Selected verses in order vs 1/6/5

Magnificent in many ways, and yet…

I very much wanted to like this recital and found much to enjoy in it, yet, like some other reviewers, I cannot help but feel that Heppner’s voice is not always ideal for the music chosen. Heppner is not actually a Heldentenor – the colour of the voice is too bright – his is an unusual dramatic-lyric voice, so he is understandably drawn to the “light-heroic” French repertoire. Thus he is best in lighter Wagner roles such as Lohengrin and also better suited to the grander utterances in French opera such as “Nature immense”, the apostrophe to Nature from Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust”. This suits him well, but he has neither the variety of colour nor the glamour of tone to do justice to more intimate or sparkling arias; his palette of tonal colours is limited and too often a certain rasping strain afflicts the top notes passages with a higher-lying tessitura. He can reach the notes, but they do not sound comfortable, nor do they bloom.

If all this sounds negative, I do not want to overdo it. Much of this disc is very fine indeed; the accompaniments by Myung-Whun Chung with the LSO and the London Voices find them all in top form: sensitive, flexible, and gorgeous in tone. I knew I was not listening to French forces; the accents, both musical and verbal, like Heppner’s own serviceable French with its enthusiastically rolled “r’s”, are too generic, but the very Gallic cover design and programme could almost convince the casual listener that this was recorded in a Parisian venue.

It is good to have the full, extended versions of the arias “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” and “Ô paradis” instead of the truncated concert numbers and the programme is very satisfying in the way that it presents a survey of 19C French opera. For some, Heppner’s tasteful restraint might border on inexpressiveness and I cannot deny that I am more moved by Tucker’s “tearing a passion to tatters” as Eléazar, but as sheer vocalism Heppner’s singing is impressive. He has superb breath control and even if his tone is not exactly warm or refulgent, it usually falls gratefully on the ear, because the voice is steady and even. We have no singer other than Jonas Kaufmann able to encompass the vocal demands of such music and taken as whole, this disc is a courageous tour de force by a major and serious artist who is probably now approaching the twilight of his career. This recital was recorded in 2001 and as such will form a lasting testament to his talents in this specific repertoire.

Fine French Fare

Canadian tenor Ben Heppner is certainly one of the finest singers on the current operatic scene. Despite his tendency to slightly squeeze the voice on top rather than allow it to bloom, he truly has a lovely vocal quality, full of warmth and color, along with a superior musical intelligence with which he has begun to bring a deepening sense of dramatic conviction to his interpretions over the last few years. On this disc, he succeeds greatly in the arias from operas which are within his vocal fach: Les Troyens, La Juive, El Cid, L’Africaine, and Le prophète. In particular, it is joy to hear the ardor and longing in his Enée (his complete traversal of the role with the LSO recently won a Grammy), the world-weariness of his Eléazar without the Italianate sobbing which has become de rigueur, and the victorious triumph of Jean de Leyde. Though Mr. Heppner’s sense of lyricism serves him well, the other selections really require a different type of tenor, one whose vocal quality is lighter and more flexible in terms of dynamics and shading. Nonetheless, this is a fine recording, with exciting contributions from both the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Myung-Whun Chun.

Good, but something missing…

Ben Heppner is probably the best heldentenor around, but a great German singer does not a great French singer make. All the notes are there but the headtones are missing. Sometimes, Heppner sounds like he is really pushing it on the high notes. A French tenor would have known to float them rather than belt them out like a good Wagnerite. This is most obvious in the Berlioz and Halevy selections. Things improve a little in Massenet and then they improve a lot in Meyerbeer. That’s to be expected because Meyerbeer was a German trying to write Italian opera for Paris, not a real “French” composer. The Massenet selections from LeCid are spectacular, but part of the effect is from the chorus and large orchestra. The London Symphony Orchestra,led by Myung-Whun Chung,is an asset on this disc. It is consistently full and it gives silky support to the singer. The final item is a rousing version of the Berlioz arrangement of “La Marseillaise.” Everyone pulls this off well and it makes a great ending for the disc. Maybe somebody could do the same kind of arrangement for the Star Spangled Banner. It would be an impressive alternative to the pop-soul-country versions that seem to be the norm these days.

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