Ben Heppner and the Philharmonia – 20 November

Béatrice et Bénédict – Ah! Je vais l’aimer
Le carnaval romain – Overture, Op.9
Les troyens – Royal Hunt and Storm & Inutiles regrets
La juive – Rachel, quand de Seigneur
Das Rheingold – Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla
Die Walküre – Winterstürme
Siegfried – Forest Murmurs & Selige Öde auf sonniger Höh’!
Götterdämmerung – Brünnhilde … heilige Braut & Funeral March and Finale

Ben Heppner (tenor)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Carlo Rizzi

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 20 November, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The ’printed’ part of the programme ended with Le carnaval romain, a scintillating overture that received a scintillating performance from a British orchestra under an Italian, though not Roman, conductor.

It was the culmination of an evening that found the Philharmonia Orchestra in customary fine form, with Carlo Rizzi bringing zest and impetus to the Wagnerian items without pushing or rushing them and still respecting the solemnity of ’Siegfried’s Funeral March’ and the inwardness of ’Forest Murmurs’. If one had not associated Rizzi with Wagner, perhaps one should think again.

In the second half, dominated by Berlioz, Wagner’s expansiveness gave way to the more extroverted ’Royal Hunt and Storm’ and the aforementioned overture, in which the members of the percussion section seemed to be enjoying their lot.

The soloist was Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, who was making a welcome return to London after illness had forced him to cancel a number of engagements. As one member of the appreciative audience commented, “That’s coming back from the dead – and some.” Indeed, Heppner was in splendid voice, whether in the long lines of Siegfried or in the difficult tessitura of “Inutiles regrets”. How effectively, in muted tone, did he begin “Selige Öde auf sonniger Höh!” or in like manner surrender himself as Siegfried faces death in the Götterdämmerung excerpt: “It is sweet to die – Brünnhilde offers me … her welcome!”: the voice hushed, the will resigned.

He began the second half in similar vein, opening the Halévy aria with a swathe of legato, then building the tension as Eléazar desperately promises his daughter Rachel that she will not die. I remember hearing Richard Tucker, in the same hall nearly 30 years before, chewing the aria to pieces, but there was no need for Heppner to overdo things, for his adherence to the words together with his musicality created the necessary effect.

Nor was he fazed by the demands of “Inutiles regrets”, in which Aeneas determines to leave Carthage and Queen Dido. The voice rung out, encompassing some awkward leaps with seeming ease. The fact that Heppner sang Siegmund and Siegfried gives an idea of the voice but not of its flexibility: not, of course, enough for Rossini, but certainly enough for the insouciance of Benedict’s intentions in the second Berlioz aria.

The evening ended with an encore in the form of Heppner singing the “Prize Song” from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, its lines well supported vocally and its phrases eloquently shaped. I cannot imagine that there was anybody in the audience who did not enjoy the evening.

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