Sharing a Tenor Moment

Three noted tenors passed through town recently – no, not those three tenors, although at the Met, Plácido Domingo was finishing up a run of Samson et Dalila while Luciano Pavarotti took what surely must be one last crack at an old signature role, Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. What we’re talking about here is a trio from the younger generation – Roberto Alagna, Ben Heppner, and Ian Bostridge, three tenors unlikely to join forces as a glitzy pop group (although the prospect is intriguing) but whose individual careers can only continue upward. Since he sings more or less the same operatic repertory as his celebrated predecessors, Roberto Alagna has been inevitably compared to them, but so far, his New York reception has failed to equal the acclaim he gets abroad, especially in England. Poor judgment and bad luck are at least in part to blame. When Alagna made his Met debut as Rodolfo in La Bohème two seasons ago, he was foolishly overhyped by his record label, EMI Classics, which promoted him as a heartthrob poster boy, opera’s own Leonardo DiCaprio. Worse, the tenor was in poor voice, and the fans let him know it.

Singers more highly touted than Alagna have arrived at the Met only to fall on their faces and never recover, but this tenor keeps trying. Among his recently acquired assets is the glamorous Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu (another pet of the British), whom he married soon after the Bohème fiasco. Now the lovebirds appear as a team whenever possible, currently at the Met in – what else? – Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. Working to their advantage is the conductor, Bertrand de Billy, who makes an impressive debut. Seldom in the opera’s 100-year-plus history at the Met can this music have been more elegantly played, the instrumental textures so sensitively mixed, the melodic shapes so delicately tapered, or the dramatic pacing so effectively judged. On the other hand, our dream couple is trapped in a 30-year-old production that looked tatty even when new.

Although a triumph once again eluded him, Alagna was at least singing in his native language, and hearing him in that context is constructive – he is, it’s worth remembering, French-born and -bred despite his name and Sicilian ancestry. His voice does not have the forward, spinning tone that one expects from an Italian tenor (a new EMI disc of Verdi arias is not a success), but it does possess an appealing grainy nap that responds naturally to the flexible conversational contours of a typical French melodic line. If not the last word in refinement, Alagna’s Roméo is an attractive piece of singing when he tunes the notes correctly, and of course his boyish charm adds to the illusion. Gheorghiu also looks stunning, although she was vocally out of sorts at the first performance, her pitch problems improving only marginally after an extremely approximate rendition of Juliette’s showy entrance aria. Oddly, not much chemistry flows between them, let alone an irresistible erotic attraction – possibly a built-in danger when these roles are played by old marrieds. Not surprisingly, both singers make a better showing on EMI’s just-released complete recording of Roméo (5 56123 2), conducted by Michel Plasson and restoring all the cuts made at the Met.

It must be clear by now that Ben Heppner’s fate is to sing primarily Wagner parts. Other tenors have performed the composer’s heroic roles with honor since the legendary Lauritz Melchior left the scene nearly half a century ago, but I can’t think of one in recent years who combines Heppner’s clear, unblemished tone and ringing authority with such musical intelligence and manly presence. All those good things were evident in an ambitious showcase the tenor recently presented in Avery Fisher Hall with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Julius Rudel conducting. If note-to-note progress could be variable at times, the accomplishment was still mightily impressive.

Like all Heldentenors, Heppner interprets operatic knights of every sort, and he focused on the dilemmas of seven very different ones here, heroic statements from operas by Haydn, Massenet, Mozart, Weber, Wagner, and Strauss. Rodrigue’s prayer from Massenet’s Le Cid was gorgeously sung, sweepingly phrased and generously voiced – a reminder that the role was created in 1885 by the great Jean De Reszke, extravagantly admired at the Met around the turn of the century for his aristocratic Wagner heroes. Heppner is definitely in that royal line, and he proved it with an equally rapt and eloquent rendition of Parsifal’s final narration. Elsewhere, the tenor experienced a few problems of focus and support, including one painfully cracked note in Huon’s florid aria from Weber’s Oberon. These things can happen to anyone, and they hardly reflect negatively on an exceptional voice of enormous potential.

I had to miss the end of Heppner’s concert and dash across town to the Frick Collection to catch the New York debut of Ian Bostridge, a tenor whose reviews back home in England have been nothing short of delirious. The British tend to overpromote their own, but this time the hyperbole is no exaggeration: Bostridge is decidedly one of the most original young singers I have ever encountered, and his interpretation of an all-Schumann lieder program showed me new facets of songs I’ve heard all my life and thought I knew by heart. Obviously a musician with an inquiring mind, this tenor has a doctorate from Oxford and has recently published a scholarly book entitled Witchcraft and Its Transformations, c.1650-c.1750.

That said, there is nothing dry, dusty, or academic about his approach to German song. Although perhaps in his late twenties, Bostridge looks about 17, and his startlingly complete immersion in the troubled world of “Dichterliebe,” the Opus 24 “Liederkreis,” and Schumann’s other settings of Heinrich Heine poems transformed him into some sort of psychotic Shropshire lad. Tender sensibilities may be rattled by such a joltingly confrontational stage presence, a singer who defiantly stares down his audience and moodily turns away to contemplate the innards of the piano, his face twisted with pain as he savors all the implied irony and bitterness of songs that most other singers interpret as sweet expressions of Romantic longing. The voice is unusual, too, more honeyed than the typical British tenor (if one takes Peter Pears as the paradigm) but with a pleading urgency that tugs at the ear as much as Bostridge’s intense physical embodiment of the music rivets the eye. It can all be heard, but of course not seen, on his first EMI recording of the same program (5 56575 2), with a kindred spirit at the piano, Julius Drake, whose impassioned accompaniments are just as unsettling and revelatory.

Sharing a Tenor Moment