Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Heppner does Wagner

I finally broke down and bought Ben Heppner's Wagner recital disc on DG. It, like Placido Domingo's of some time ago, consists of excerpts from Der Ring des Nibelungen. It was, for reasons I will outline below, competent and passable - but it was not the disc Domingo turned in, and a far cry from many Wagner discs.

First, I have some stern words from Herr Schneider and the Staatskapelle Dresden. I understand that Ben Heppner is the star here, but to allow the Staatskapelle - one of the best bands in the world - to be balanced so perversely is a major issue. This isn't Verdi or Rossini; Richard Wagner wrote his music to incorporate - not accompany - the voice of the singer. In fact, there are moments where the singer is distinctly secondary to the music. Furthermore, Schneider, probably under the direction of the DG producers, holds back the Staatskapelle when the orchestra should overwhelm everything. Let the beautiful, rich Dresden sound thunder forth - as Von Karajan did in Meistersinger (EMI, 1970) to his credit. For example, "Siegmund heiß ich und Siegmund bin ich" should not sound like a cleverly-chosen aria for a tenor recital. It should thrill and excite, so that the audience feels the exultation that Siegmund and Sieglinde felt at the end of act 1. Wagner intended as much. Let's not degrade Wagner so Ben Heppner sounds good.

I am going to preface these remarks with a sort of counterbalance: Heppner is beautiful and moving, if not overly emotional. His lyricism really brings out the inner voices of the roles in an intelligent and dramatic way. One senses that these are not middle-aged men, but youths with great enthusiasm and excitement. I also cannot fault, technically, his voice. Others might, and I leave my comment box open for a reason. My problem isn't with his voice, but how well-suited that voice is for Wagner, and the most difficult roles (save, maybe, Tristan) Wagner wrote - in terms of length, acting, and music.

And that brings me to my main point: Ben Heppner. I will avoid comparing him to Melchior, as - in comparison to whom - every tenor suffers. No, Heppner should be considered on his own merits. He is a very good lyric tenor, who can sustain the long line, and is ideal for many roles. Siegmund and Siegfried, sad to say, require something somewhat more than he has. James King had the dark, baritonal - but ringing when needed - tenor that Siegmund requires. By the same token, Siegfried Jerusalem - when he was on form, which was and is a dicey proposition - had the sort of bright, ringing voice needed for Siegfried. Peter Schreier never sang these ultimate roles of the Heldentenor repertoire. That should say something, as Schreier (heir to Wunderlich) is about as great a lyric as we'll see for some time.

Heppner has been very wise to steer clear of these roles. He is suited for a Lohengrin or Tannhaeuser; better-suited for a Walther von Stolzing or (maybe) a Parsifal. The disc isn't bad, but Domingo has made it very clear how well he does with Wagner. Maybe that's Heppner's problem: were Domingo in retirement, we might be able to accept his beautiful voice - but an underpowered voice - as a Heldentenor. As Wagnerian interpretation, this shows how the Ring would sound were it sung by a young-sounding tenor. However, as beautiful and moving as Heppner can be, I want my Wagnerian tenors to have some power and some lyricism. The Bayreuth bark should never appear, but it should be an amazement to the listener that the singer managed to sing the part without resorting to it.


At 5:19 PM, Anonymous SoMG said...

I can't believe someone actually likes Domingo's Wagner. To me it's just god-awful. Neither his attempted German accent nor his musical sense fits Wagner at all. Also he's too old for the heldentenors and it shows in his voice. Finally, he's just too nice a guy. Something about his singing always makes me feel comfortable, happy. The benevolence of his personality always shows, even when he sings Otello. Wagner's characters especially the heldentenors are supposed to make you nervous. Like Ayn Rand's protagonists, they don't care about you. Playing villians is a good way to prepare to sing them. When was the last time Domingo played a villian?

My favorite Walthers are Wolfgang Windgassen and Jess Thomas. Sorry to be so conventional but for the combination of intelligence, spontaneity, diction, musicality, and youthful sound I've never heard them matched.

My favorite Sachs is Josef Greindl. People think of him as a grunter and a brainless bellower but that's not him, it's the cave-man roles he sings. Listen to his lieder--Schubert and Loewe--and to his unbelievably beautiful and sensitive ensemble singing in Mozart's Coronation Mass-- the "Dona nobis pacem" at the end.

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