Ben Heppner triumphs in Wagner’s Ring cycle on a new CD but isn’t in the COC's production
The Canadian cultural scene is awash in “Rings” these days. First there was Toronto’s Lord of the Rings play with music. Next up is the Canadian Opera Company’s Canadian premiere of Richard Wagner’s monumental four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle that will inaugurate the COC’s new Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts opera house in Toronto in September.
Now, courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon, Canadian tenor Ben Pleppner, 50, can be heard on a new CD that marks his first recording of music from Wagner’s Ring. The disc is an international musical event, because in an age that lacks true Heldentenöre (“heroic tenors”), Heppner may be as close to the real article as we have. In some respects, he is an unusual Wagnerian leading man because his very ample voice is essentially lyrical, Italianate, almost soft-grained, yet with exceptional ringing power. Here he tackles big stretches of the heavy heroic roles of Siegfried, two of the most taxing roles in all opera.
Heppner is of course already an acclaimed Wagner interpreter who has triumphed internationally as Tristan (in Tristan und Isolde), Lohengrin, and Walther von Stolzing (in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg). Last year, the Guardian remarked that “His Lohengrin and Tristan are simply the best in the world at the moment.” The new disc shows that Heppner has a voice that is also right for Siegfried, with thrilling timbre and power and sufficient “beefiness.” In the theatre, Siegfried calls for a sound of unlimited amplitude, lyricism and romance (qualities that might seem mutually exclusive). They are killer roles: the almost superhuman demands Wagner makes on the voice are extreme in terms
of duration and force. Yet Siegfried also requires soft singing, as Heppner confirms in gentle excerpts from act two of Siegfried, the third instalment in the cycle.
It’s hard to recall the last time a major label featured a tenor practically on his own in “bleeding chunks” (George Bernard Shaw’s piquant phrase) of the Ring. No less a tenor than Plácido Domingo, when he recorded Ring extracts for EMI in 2002, was joined by a soprano. Since Heppner has not yet assumed any Ring role on stage, the new CD— with the Dresden Staatskapelle, conducted by Peter Schneider—offers something of a preview of him in Wagner’s magnum opus. Complete live performances will not occur until June 2008, when he takes on the part of the eponymous hero in Siegfried at the Aix-enProvence Festival in France, supported by the mighty Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Sir Simon Rattle. One year later, he will sing Siegfried in Götterdämmerung, the final part of the cycle, at Aix.
Which prompts the question: why will Heppner—arguably the world’s reigning Wagnerian tenor, proud Canadian nationalist, adopted Torontonian (albeit born in British Columbia)—not be singing in the COC Ring cycle? His New York manager is diplomatic. “When Richard Bradshaw and the COC were planning a Ring cycle, they of
course enquired about Ben participating in it,” says William Guerri of Columbia Artists Management Inc. “But at the time they asked, Ben did not plan to sing those roles in fall 2006. It was only after [the COC Ring cycle] was planned and cast that he took up those roles.” (Heppner will sing one aria, which may or may not be Wagner, at the June 14 opening concert of the new opera house.)
The tenor’s most recent main stage appearance with the COC was 10 years ago, in 1996, as Canio in IPagliacci. Prior to that, his last appearance in a COC production was in 1988. The COC’s artistic administrator, Philip Boswell, confirms Guerri’s account with respect to Heppner’s participation in the COC Ring. Boswell says they discussed the role of Siegmund in Die Walküre “for a long time” and were planning to do a concert version of act one with Heppner in spring 2003. Based on that, they would decide whether to proceed with the stage production later on. But ultimately, he says, Heppner decided the part of Siegmund was too low for his voice. “Of course we were disappointed that he [Heppner] decided not to do Siegmund, but we have an excellent result with Clifton Forbis as Siegmund and Christian Franz as Siegfried,” Boswell says. Asked if Heppner might figure in a revival of the COC Ring in some future season, Boswell says, “We have every intention of reviving the Ring but it will depend on funding. If it happens, it might then be interesting for Ben to do it if he’s amenable.” M
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