Ben Heppner

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Renée Fleming returns to the water as a love-struck mermaid. by Paul J. Pelkonen Fathoms below: Renée Fleming in the title role of Rusalka.Photo by Ken Howard © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera. The return of soprano Renée Fleming is...
Renée Fleming returns to the water as a love-struck mermaid. by Paul J. Pelkonen Fathoms below: Renée Fleming in the title role of Rusalka.Photo by Ken Howard © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera. The return of soprano Renée Fleming is always anticipated at the Metropolitan Opera. And here, she returns t the role that has become one of her signatures in the last 15 years: the title character in this revival of Antonin Dvo?ák's Rusalka. Although this year's Metropolitan Opera schedule forgoes the operas of Richard Wagner, fans of that composer's late Romantic style should flock to Rusalka. Also, this is one of the last Otto Schenck-Gunther Schneider-Siemssen productions remaining in the Metropolitan Opera repertory. Antonín Dvo?ák is one of the greatest Czech composers, but he is known in the U.S. for his symphonies and string quartets. An exploration of his operatic repertory is worth the time of any opera lover. Rusalka shares chromatic melodies, extended arias and sugar-sweet orchestration with Wagner's "middle period" operas with a dollop of folksy lyricism that marks the music as distinctly Dvo?ák. In addition to Ms. Fleming, this revival of Otto Schenck's gorgeous (and thoroughly, painstakingly picturesque) production features bass John Relyea as the Water Goblin, Dolora Zajick as Jezibaba and tenor Piotr Beczala as the Prince who falls head-over-flippers for the title character. All ends tragically, but Dvo?ák's music is absolutely divine. With the brilliant young Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium, this should be a revival to remember. Rusalka opens Jan. 23. A Live in HD broadcast is scheduled for Feb. 8. Recording Recommendations: Czech Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Sir Charles Mackerras Decca, 1998 Rusalka: Renée Fleming Prince: Ben Heppner Jezibaba: Eva Urbanova Water Goblin: Franz Hawlata Sir Charles Mackerras was brilliant in Czech repertory. On this, the first major-label recording of Dvorak's most popular opera, he has an international cast led by Ms. Fleming captured in her absolute prime. Also, if you want to hear why opera lovers used to be excited about Canadian heldentenor Ben Heppner, this is one of his better recordings. Tickets for Rusalka are available at MetOperaFamily.Org, by calling (212) 362-6000, or at the box office starting August 11.
232 1 day ago
Leslie Uyeda’s When the Sun Comes Out is being premiered by Vancouver’s Queer Arts Festival as “Canada’s first Lesbian opera” at the Roundhouse Community Center in Yaletown. I caught the second performance; there is one more tomorrow nig...
Leslie Uyeda’s When the Sun Comes Out is being premiered by Vancouver’s Queer Arts Festival as “Canada’s first Lesbian opera” at the Roundhouse Community Center in Yaletown. I caught the second performance; there is one more tomorrow night.  If I were catty (moi?), I’d ponder what other Canadian operas of any sort have been heard, or heard of. Considering how many fine singers Canada produces in every genre, the balance would seem to demand redress. Can the land of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen—never mind Jon Vickers, Ben Heppner and Anna Russell—really lack a national opera? When the Sun Comes Out does not address any especially Canadian problem.  It is set in an invented country, of which we learn only that traditional sex roles are strictly enforced there—clearly nothing like gloriously fusive Vancouver the week after Pride Day. Uyeda might otherwise be a candidate to address the national opera situation. She writes gracefully for the voice, placing melodious emotional statements in the center of a range rather than shrill or growling extremes: Beautiful voices sound beautiful when singing Uyeda’s music con fuoco. She is unafraid to use melody to express predicament, to underline memory, to pre-echo and postlude a phrase to which she wishes to draw attention, though I’m not sure (on one hearing) that her melodic style is an especially individual one. If she does not oblige her singers to scream, she does have them speak some brutal lines of the libretto, making one wonder if she could not imagine a singable phrase for the sentiments in question. Withal, Uyeda is skilled at setting her music for a small ensemble, in this case piano, violin, flute, clarinet and cello. The voices were foregrounded and had no trouble making themselves understood. One operatic tradition that I missed, perhaps because Rachel Rose’s libretto consisted rather of declaimed imagery and verse reflection than of dramatic confrontation and resolution, was the combination of more than one voice to make a unifying or dissident musical point. As in baroque opera, duets are rare, and are not a contrast but a pairing, two voices eliding on a single thought. There was only one. It was a beauty, but Uyeda made us wait ninety minutes for it. Perhaps a more experienced librettist would have given her more opportunities to use opera’s great gift (denied to most spoken drama) of concerted vocal writing, of letting more than one thing happen at once. The story, set wherever it was set, concerns a rather butch lesbian, Solana, an outcast in her own land, who has wandered from woman to woman until meeting Lilah, unhappily married to a closeted gay husband named Javan. This could be seen as returning to the tradition of Rossini’s serious operas, where the trouser mezzo always took the soprano away from the tenor—except this time the pants are on the soprano. Lilah no longer loves Javan, but cannot leave him because they have a daughter, mercifully kept offstage. Javan surprises the lovers in bed, but his threats are not serious. He’d really rather tell the story of his own murdered lover, Azhar, after whom he has named his daughter. The suggestion that they all settle down to keep each other’s secrets thrills nobody, but no other resolution is acceptable. If this were Verismo there would be blood, if baroque, there would be a joyous volte-face. We do get that duet, and it’s pretty satisfying. Teiya Kasahara, the Solana, is a strikingly handsome performer with a sizable, velvety soprano, easy and even from top to bottom, and she makes elegant, expressive use of a good trill. She has sung the Queen of the Night and Olympia, but there is nothing of the canary here: Hers is a full, womanly sound, and her diction is clear. Julia Morgan’s mezzo is barely darker in tone and mingled with Kasahara’s as if they were sisters. On a recording, it would be difficult to distinguish one from the other, which makes for a particular kind of sensuality. Tenor Aaron Durand has a lighte
9 days ago
A stunning triumph for Violetta Urmana in Wagner Tristan und Isolde Prom 19 at the Royal Albert Hall, London. Luscious, resplendent timbre, superb mastery of phrase and timbre. Urmana 's voice glowed with magnificent richness. But even m...
A stunning triumph for Violetta Urmana in Wagner Tristan und Isolde Prom 19 at the Royal Albert Hall, London. Luscious, resplendent timbre, superb mastery of phrase and timbre. Urmana 's voice glowed with magnificent richness. But even more impressive was her characterization. This Isolde truly comes from a long line of Queens with superhuman powers to heal and perhaps to destroy. She knows potions, spells and herbal lore. For all we know Isolde is a distant heir to Erda and the goddesses of the Earth. Urmana's beautiful tone suggests richness and beauty. But Urmana is a true artist who can create depths to a part through the intelligence of her interpretation. Isolde is beautiful, but her true beauty lies in her intelligence and inner attributes.Once, Isolde brought Tristan back from death. It was her moral duty, though he'd killed the man she loved. Marke wants her because she'll be the crowning asset of his kingdom. Once mistress of her own realm, she's now a slave. For a free spirit like Isolde that is more humiliating than death. When Urmana sings the long recitatives in Act I, her voice glowers with Isolde's pain. But Isolde is strong. Urmana sings her lines almost like an ancient incantation, expressing Isolde's resolute dignity.Tristan und Isolde isn't really about love. Their relationship is thorny. She hates him. He too has a death wish, which has followed him like a shroud since childhood. When the potion takes hold, they are transformed as if by magic into hyper versions of themselves. They snatch a night of love, but even then the murmuring swell in the orchestra reminds us of the ocean, a force of nature greater than all mortals. Art the end, Isolde is restored to her true destiny. Urmana sings the Mild und Liese so it feels like a valediction. Isolde may have lost her man but she she's now in a kind of apotheosis, her powers enhanced by this harrowing experience of life and love. Listen to the broadcast of this Prom HERE for a masterclass in singing and interpretation. Semyon Bychkov conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, creating an Einleitung that shimmered with transparent textures. Could we hear light dancing on waves and feel the mist of sea spray? Can we imagine the "Irish child" in her free element? But the undertow reminded us of the tides and the inexorable motion of the seas. With each new surge, what had been before is changed. Bychov brings out the beauty in the score, but also its undercurrent of instability and darkness. The music, and the oceans, have a pulse like the human heart. The pulse beats even when the orchestra falls quiet. It's a metaphor for life and death. The Yong Seaman (Andrew Staples) sang from a gallery way up in the dome of the Royal Albert Hall, his voice radiating over long distances., Later, Brangäne (Mihoko Fujimura) would sing from the organ loft, and the flautist who played the Shepherd's song would stand near the choir stalls. Throughout the opera, this sense of freedom contrasts with containment. Bychov's touch is refined, almost like Haitink's, but his tempi ebb and flow as strongly as the tides. Robert Dean Smith sang Tristan. He gets the notes and charms, but projection was at times a problem. Bychov restrained the orchestra so he could be heard over the surge. Fortunately, the crucial passages in the Third Act are bleak, relatively unemcumbered ny musical background. Dean Smith then came into his own, expressing Tristan's sense of desolation. When Ben Heppner sang the part in 2009, his voice was ravaged by illness in real life, but his portrayal was even more poignant as a result. Tristan doesn't really open himself up to his deepest feelings until he faces death. Robert Dean Smith's finest moments happened when they counted.Kwangchul Youn was an outstanding King Marke. Youn sings with remarkable agility for a voice centred so low in the register. His voice has authority but his phrasing is flexible, and he adds nuance and colour to create the King as a complex pers
20 days ago