A Portrait of Ben Heppner: Review

This review is going to be interested for a couple of reasons. First of all - I have pictures!! Second, it's the first review I'll have done about something I've actually witnessed. Finally, a lot of the reviewing I plan to leave to someone else, as it turns out, because they say almost exactly what I would have.

So first off, I'll explain the event. This is part of a tour Ben Heppner is doing of 4 locations (which will be listed on the program photo later). We were lucky in some ways as the location here was a very small church and quite an intimate venue. This allowed both audience members and performers to relax and feel a lighthearted connection that would have been difficult to establish in a larger hall. Heppner's Repertoire was interesting, consisting of Six Songs, Op. 48 by Edvard Grieg, 7 songs by Jean Sibelius, and 6 songs by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Finally, Heppner finished the program with opera arias he announced. These were "O souverain, o juge, o père" from Le Cid, "Winterstürme" from Die Walküre, and "L'improvviso" from Andrea Chénier. As you will see in the review below, the arias stole the show:

"Published On Tue Jul 20 2010

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Ben Heppner’s notes are no longer quite as secure in quieter 
passages, often sounding off-pitch in the early part of the evening.
Ben Heppner’s notes are no longer quite as secure in quieter passages, often sounding off-pitch in the early part of the evening.

By John Terauds Entertainment Reporter
STRATFORD, ONT.—Canadian tenor Ben Heppner came home in style for the 10th anniversary of the Stratford Summer Music Festival on Tuesday night, treating the intimate St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church as if it were one of the world’s great opera halls.
Expertly accompanied by Toronto pianist John Hess, Heppner treated his capacity audience with a mixture of art song and opera arias, interspersing the evening’s serious music with friendly, witty banter.
The beauty of being able to hear a live performance by a veteran artist of Heppner’s international calibre is the sheer depth of expression contained in every note. Even though the program opened with a selection of salon songs by Edvard Grieg and Jean Sibelius, the heroic tenor treated them as if they were mini-operas, fully plumbing the depths of love, ecstasy, longing and loss in the poetry as well as the music.
Heppner’s full, rich tenor pipes rang as loudly and brightly as ever. But the hair-raising voice hid the inescapable fact that, as is the case with many singers who spend years pushing their vocal cords in big opera houses, Heppner’s notes are no longer quite as secure in quieter passages, often sounding off-pitch in the early part of the evening.
The singer didn’t do himself any favours with a selection of six Russian songs by Peter Ilytch Tchaikovsky, which opened the second half of the concert. In reading the score from a stand placed in front of him, instead of from memory, Heppner lost much of his impressive ability to communicate the essence of the text.
With sunset came the moment everyone had been waiting for. The singer brushed aside the formalities of the salon for the opera stage, letting loose three staples from his dramatic repertoire: “O Souverain” from Jules Massenet’s opera Le Cid, “Winterstürme wichen dem wonnemond” from Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, and “L’improvviso” from Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chenier.
He brought the house down, and left our ears — and hearts — ringing.
It’s been seven years since Heppner helped boost the current incarnation of a music festival at Stratford with a week-long residency. It’s also been four years since the tenor sang in Toronto. He was supposed to be the marquee guest at last fall’s Canadian Opera Company’s 60th anniversary gala, but cancelled close to the last minute. He has promised to try again, with pianist John Hess, on Sept. 11 at the Four Seasons Centre.
If Tuesday night’s concert was any indication, that should be an event to look forward to.
On Thursday, Friday and Saturday mornings, Heppner and former CBC Radio personality Barbara Budd present words and music honouring legendary Canadian tenor Edward Johnson at St. Andrew’s Church in Stratford. On Sunday evening, Heppner sings with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada at Central United Church. Details at www.stratfordsummermusic.ca or 519-271-2101. The music festival runs to Aug. 22."
I agree, pretty much perfectly, with Mr. Teraud's perspective on the performance. As with many opera singers with both voices and experience  set up for large houses, Heppner is at his best when performing such repertoire, even in a small church. Perhaps he would be served by art song selections by Mahler, Strauss, and the like, backed by a full orchestra, but the piano recital with lighter (though not light, of course) pieces was probably not the best repertoire to show Ben in his best light.
Don't get me wrong however - Ben Heppner stands as a towering pinnacle among modern tenors. I, as an aspiring tenor, would give a great deal to sing with his strength, vivacity, and technical finesse. His diction, voice, technical understanding, and passionate performance made a thrilling night of art song and opera, and John Hess' accompaniment aided well in the performance. I am certainly glad I attended, and if you have the opportunity to hear Mr. Heppner in the future, I absolutely recommend attending. He is a great person, and a great artist, and he will leave you with the impression that you just witnessed a performance of one of the great singers of our time.
Perhaps one of the great highlights of my opportunity to spend the evening in Stratford was the reception post-recital that included a select number of folks from the area, the producer, and Ben Heppner himself. It was a great evening. Mr. Miller's decision to use a local catering service produced tasty dessert treats and the attendees, all passionate admirer's of Mr. Heppner, brought interesting background experiences. Many were from Stratford and worked in the area, often involved in the arts. It was interesting to hear how these people had come to end up in the Stratford area. In addition to being hit on by these older women and gay men (I make no discrimination here - it was simply a facet of the evening, you understand), I was able to speak to Mr. Heppner himself. As congenial in person as he was when speaking to his audience from the stage, he greeted me and was very careful to make sure he knew my name. He spoke to me about his career and his life and interests and was keen to know my involvement in music and so forth. It was nice that he was so sincere both when speaking to me and to other people I witnessed speaking to him. He really seemed to value everyone as people, not just as fans. He spoke of his time working on the railroad - demonstrating his very grounded, everyday background. I later had the opportunity to ask him a question regarding singing. I have heard that when asked what his voice sounded like in his head, Pavarotti replied, "like razorblades." I put the same question to Mr. Heppner, who told me that his voice sounded "thin and vinegary" in his head. He told me that for me, as a leggiero (suffice to say I was impressed that he guessed both my voice type and fach based on my speaking voice), I shouldn't even think about putting any warmth, depth, or darkness in the voice, but just think of having it high, bright, forward, and "20 inches in front of the mouth." This was all helpful advice, and wonderful of him to take the time to give.

Again, Heppner gave a great performance, and is a consummate artist, singer, performer, and above all, genuine, kind person.


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