The music season could end right now and I wouldn't complain much, because I could bask indefinitely in the afterglow of hearing Ben Heppner sing "Roses of Picardy" Sunday night. The tenor's performance of that wistful song from 1916, the third and final encore in his fabulous recital for the Shriver Hall Concert Series, sent me out into the drizzly air on a rare high.
I admit I'm an easy pushover for old ballads like "Roses of Picardy," one of the most beguiling of World War I-era songs, but it takes an uncommon singer to make them sound fresh and substantive today (or to even think of performing them).
The quality of Heppner's delivery disarmed me - the way he filed his huge voice down to a near-whisper and let the tempo broaden in the second verse to let Haydn Wood's melody and Fred Weatherly's words really speak: "And the years fly on forever till the shadows veil their skies, but he loves to hold her little hands and look in her sea-blue eyes." Pure magic.
Although a recital by Heppner, the world's leading Wagnerian tenor today, could sell out halls twice as big as Shriver in major cities, turnout here was modest, if highly enthusiastic. The lucky ones who attended heard an imaginatively organized program.
The melodically elegant German-language songs from Grieg's Op. 48 were sung with charm and expressive power. Heppner deftly explored some of the most colorful songs by Sibelius, achieving great poetic warmth in Sav, sav, susa (a favorite of legendary tenor Jussi Bjorling).
Tchaikovsky treated songs as a vehicle for intensely romantic feelings and gave the piano as much, if not more, to communicate as the singer (there are many extended keyboard-alone codas). Heppner reached a peak in Otchevo, masterfully building the song's long crescendo and making every word of the heartsick poetry register. This was chill-inducing vocalism. Pianist Thomas Muraco, a solid partner throughout, also reached heights of sensitive playing here.
Although the tenor encountered a few technical bumps during the evening, nothing got in the way of the intense communication - especially when, like a Vegas veteran, Heppner ripped off his black tie, tossed it into the house and charged into the tuneful passions of the Tosti songs. (Some annoying guy in the audience seemed to think this loosening up meant it was OK to yell out requests.)
The tenor's affinity for the open-hearted Italian style served him well in these turn-of-the-century gems, as well as his first encore, Amor ti vieta from Giordano's Fedora.
It was a generous recital, not just in amount, but in the spirit of the music-making.
2008-2009 opera season
Italian repertoire will dominate the Baltimore Opera Company's 2008-2009 season, but a great American work caps the lineup.
Verdi's mighty Aida will open the season in October with Tiziana Caruso in the title role, Antonello Palombi as Radames and Mark Rucker as Amonasro. Andrea Licata will conduct.
Bellini's Norma will return with soprano Hasmik Papian, who sang the title role when the company performed this bel canto gem last in 1998. Intriguingly, Ruth Ann Swenson, a much-acclaimed coloratura soprano, is set to sing the mezzo role of Adalgisa. Christian Badea will conduct.
In the spring of 2009, the season will take a comic turn with The Barber of Seville by Rossini, starring Mark Walters in the title role. Steven White will conduct.
The season will close in May 2009 with Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, last staged by the company in 1978. The cast includes South African baritone Fikile Mvinjelwa as Porgy, Lisa Daltirus as Bess and Kishna Davis as Serena.
Information: Call 410-727-6000.
Bach from Concert Artists
Another weekend highlight was the Concert Artists of Baltimore's performance of Bach's B minor Mass. For a review, see baltimoresun .com/criticalmass.