According to the printed programme, Ben Heppner is “recognised worldwide as the finest dramatic tenor before the public”. Actually, he doesn’t need foolish hyperbole.
It is enough that he can conquer Wagner’s mighty Tristan one season and return the next as an Idomeneo who musters “Fuor del mar” in Mozart’s ornate original version. Neither Pavarotti nor Domingo took that risk.
On Wednesday, Heppner demonstrated his affinity for intimate challenges in the wide open spaces of Carnegie Hall. Unlike many an opera star before him, he trusted the music to speak for itself. He stood quietly, sang simply.
He saved heroic thrust for the rare climaxes. He made much of the words, whether German or Swedish, Russian or Italian. Without physical flamboyance, he offered object lessons in expressive focus and dynamic restraint.
The evening began with the rhapsodic introspection of Grieg’s Six German Songs, Op. 48. Next came seven moody selections by Sibelius, culminating in the desperation of “Svarta rosor”.
After the interval Heppner turned to the melancholy of Tchaikovsky, even venturing the essentially feminine sentiment of Mignon’s “None but the Lonely Heart”.
Finally he savoured the gutsy charm of Paolo Tosti, miming the mock-guitar accompaniment of “Chitarrata abruzzese” and melting all hearts with the pianissimo refrains of “Ideale”.
At encore time he threw caution to the wind, tossed his bow-tie to the audience and ripped into “Amor ti vieta” from Fedora. Art, high and low, had been served. Now it was time for fun. Heppner’s superb partner at the keyboard – to call him an accompanist would border on insult – was the veteran Thomas Muraco.
He knew exactly when to follow and when to lead, and deserved the deferent tribute the tenor gave him during the introduction and postlude of Tchaikovsky’s “Does the Day Reign?”
Next time perhaps he might choose a recent photograph for the programme magazine rather than a portrait possibly left over from his high school yearbook.
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