Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

Renee Fleming and Ben Heppner at Carnegie Hall
With Strauss at the Climax
AUFBAU 65:# February 5, 1999 p. 13
924 words
by Leonard Lehrman [& Helene Williams]
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU

[Two fortyish singers in their prime,] New Yorker lyric soprano Renee Fleming and Canadian heldentenor Ben Heppner, in some of the most exciting singing to be heard here for some time, left their fans applauding wildly and calling for more at their sold-out Carnegie Hall solo recitals three days apart. Both recitals reached their sensual and dramatic near-climaxes in Richard Strauss's classic songs from his opus 27, "Morgen" and "Caecilie." But how they got there was worth noting by way of comparison.

Fleming's second half comprised a perfect symmetry, balancing Claude Debussy's luscious "Ariettes Oubliees" to poems of Paul Verlaine with six meaty Richard Strauss songs from various periods, including the aforementioned "Morgen."

Her first half was devoted to Goethe heroines: Suleika, Gretchen, and Mignon, as set by Schubert and Wolf, with settings of identical texts by Glinka, Liszt and Mendelssohn in between. In all except Wolf's "Heiss mich nicht reden," which seemed to lie a little low for her, she portrayed every character with convincing surety, especially the rarely heard early Schubert setting of a whole scene from Faust, where she sang not only Gretchen but growled the Evil Spirit and hauntingly chanted the Chorus in Latin using straight tone.

This was the only piece that seemed at all unfamiliar to her well-versed accompanist, Steven Blier, stepping in for James Levine, down with the flu. Though perhaps a bit understated in Wolf's "Kennst du das Land," Mr. Blier's substitution proved a distinct asset, especially in the seven encores: in the first two, Gershwin's "Someone To Watch Over Me" and "Fascinatin' Rhythm," his virtuosic but sensitive improvisatory interludes added buoyancy to an already ebullient evening.

Ravishingly-performed arias from Puccini's La Rondine and Dvorak's Russalka--which Fleming has called "probably my favorite role"--sandwiched the wicked "Another New Voice Teacher" by Gene Shear and Andrew Thomas, satirizing the person "who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows Jimmy Levine!" Also generously included was an Emily Dickinson setting by the young American composer Ricky Ian Gordon, who was present and took a bow from the balcony. The evening ended, literally, on a high note, with "Caecilie," just slightly understated in its accompaniment.

Mr. Heppner, by contrast, used "Morgen" and "Caecilie" to conclude his first half, by which time he was nearly warmed up enough for the high B on which he had cracked earlier in the program while essaying Liszt's settings of three Petrarcan sonnets. These are really songs for piano with voice, as are a number of the six Rachmaninoff songs with which his second half began. And although the lid of the piano was wide open, as opposed to being at half-stick for Ms. Fleming, accompanist Craig Rutenberg's playing, though full of colors and always accurate, was also consistently understated.

Slight vocal strain characterized the opening "Adelaide" of Beethoven, disappearing only eventually in the closing turn-of-the-century parlor songs by Teresa del Riego, Ernest Charles, and Oley Speaks, during which the tenor engaged the audience in playful banter about singing a love song directly to an elderly woman in the audience who "would be approved of by my wife!"

Only with his first of four encores, the Prize Song from Wagner's _Die Meistersinger_, was the tenor's full potential finally in evidence, as he remarked on himself: "Now that I'm warmed up, maybe I should sing the whole program over again. Actually you're really lucky: you usually have to wait five and a half hours before that [the Prize Song] comes!"

Though he had sung this recital at least six times before, Mr. Heppner evidently either has to learn how to warm up earlier or faster, or else to overcome the recitalist's nerves that seem not to bother him in the opera house. He also needs to fix some of his Russian vowels, especially the "ee" which too often came out as "eh," and to avoid the tendency to bray, as in the two wonderful settings of Pushkin--whose bicentennial is coming up this June.

But all in all it must be said: Fleming and Heppner are the real thing. John Corigliano, Andre Previn, and William Bolcom have been lucky composers to have their operas performed by these artists, who have graced all major stages of the world in our time.

[We wish we had had the opportunity to hear them in Meistersinger at Bayreuth last summer--though we did manage to catch Fleming as Eva in rehearsal there in 1996--but neither was in the cast last year. Wolfgang Wagner's multi-period abstract staging of the opera, in which both have sung, and which we saw in its 1998 revival, did nothing to mar Daniel Barenboim's confident pacing in the pit, except perhaps for the usual problems with the chorus at the end of Act II. Among the soloists, Hans-Joachim Ketelsen as Kothner was particularly outstanding.

Mark Twain is quoted as having said "I have been told that Wagner's music is better than it sounds," and at Bayreuth that really is the truth: singers singing with normal voices actually can be heard over the enormous orchestra, because it is placed so far back under the stage. (The only seemingly superhuman thing required of them is endurance.) Subscribers to the festival order and await their tickets seven years in advance. (Analogous perhaps to the old Trabant automobiles in the GDR, a colleague has quipped.) But perhaps, having been invited back to perform at Pianohaus Steingraeber again soon, we won't have to wait that long.]

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