HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803 – 1869), ALFRED BRUNEAU (1857 – 1934), CHARLES GOUNOD (1818 – 1893), JULES MASSENET (1842 – 1912), GIACOMO MEYERBEER (1791 – 1864), HENRI RABAUD (1873 – 1949), ERNEST REYER (1823 – 1909), GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868), and GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Héroïque – French Opera Arias—Bryan Hymel, tenor; Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno; PKF – Prague Philharmonia; Emmanuel Villaume, conductor [Recorded in Smetana Hall, Prague, Czech Republic, 18 – 25 August 2014; Warner Classics 0825646179503; 1 CD, 72:54; Available from Amazon, fnac, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]
Life, Art, and the intersections thereof have changed in confounding, unfathomable ways since the birth of recording technology, but one aspect of an artist’s life that is now perhaps irreversibly complicated but remains essentially undiminished is the critical importance of first impressions. Before her débuts in Chicago, New York, and Dallas, when in America only myopic competition judges and schoolmates had heard her sing, opera lovers knew the voice of Maria Callas from the fascinating recordings that had crossed the Atlantic in advance of her homecoming. By the time that she opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 1956 – 1957 Season in the title rôle of Bellini’s Norma, aficionados were already acquainted with the voice that could both scale the heights of Elvira's mad scene in Bellini's I puritani and imbue the vast expanses of Isolde's Liebestod with grandiose tone. Though not so long ago when measured by pages of the calendar, the age in which an artist's career in the recording studio was guided in large part by the merits of his artistry now seems separated from today's Classical recording industry by eternities of both philosophy and practice. Lost in maelstroms of promotion, production, and processing, too many artists of quality are now never granted the opportunity to record as they might have done in years part, despite a continuing, bewildering procession of recordings of dubious quality and for which there simply are no audiences. One of the principal joys of Héroïque is that it allows one of today’s finest singers a rare opportunity to preserve for posterity performances of a selection of arias representative of the niche that he has carved for himself in the often hostile sphere of opera in the Twenty-First Century. When he débuted at the Metropolitan Opera on 26 December 2012, in one of the most treacherous rôles in opera, Énée in Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens, tenor Bryan Hymel did not arrive at Lincoln Center with an extensive discography heralding the glories of his tremendous voice. With the names of a number of the finest singers of recent years conspicuously absent from lists of new releases, Warner Classics must be congratulated for taking a risk with Héroïque. With this disc, an important voice receives the belated solo introduction that it deserves, and a superb singer claims his own place in the legacy of artists whose début recital discs have given listeners cause to rejoice.
Ably partnered by the the PKF – Prague Philharmonia, the playing of which sometimes sounds recessed, and Strausbourg-born conductor Emmanuel Villaume, Mr. Hymel opens Héroïque with a roof-raising account of Arnold’s scene from Act Four of Rossini’s 1829 masterpiece Guillaume Tell—the bel canto tenor’s equivalent of Manrico’s ‘Di quella pira’ in Verdi’s Il trovatore. Originated by Adolphe Nourrit, who at the age of twenty-seven at the time of the première of Guillaume Tell had nearly three-quarters of his short life already behind him, the rôle of Arnold has some of the most daunting tessitura to which tenors have been subjected, his acuti famously catalogued by James Joyce. Mr. Hymel shapes the recitative ‘Ne m'abandonne point, espoir de la vengeance,’ with an apt suggestion of the character’s desperation, but his dramatic confidence grows steadily in the ascending phrases of the aria ‘Asile héréditaire, où mes yeux s'ouvrirent au jour.’ His musical confidence is never less than absolute. Seeming to genuinely interact with the excellent singers of the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno, Mr. Hymel projects stratospheric tones with ease and admirably sure intonation. The chest-beating bravado that he brings to the fearsome cabaletta, ‘Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance,’ its top Cs dispatched with exuberance, is thrilling. Mr. Hymel is one of the few tenors in the world today with not only the range and charisma but also the requisite elegance—for the rôle is not solely a study in producing pulse-quickening top notes—to sing Arnold convincingly, a qualification that his singing of the character’s most celebrated music rousingly validates.
The title character’s ‘Invocation à la nature,’ ‘Nature immense, impénétrable et fière,’ from Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust, first sung in the work’s 1846 première by Gustave-Hippolyte Roger, is one of its composer’s most entrancingly beautiful inventions, and, aided by Maestro Villaume’s unrushed but flowing tempo, Mr. Hymel sings it passionately. Revisiting music in which he has triumphed both at the MET and at Covent Garden, where he has also been acclaimed as Don José in Bizet’s Carmen, the Prince in Dvořák’s Rusalka, and the title character in Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable, the tenor devotes both febrile intensity and suavity of line to his singing of ‘Inutiles regrets’ from Les Troyens, the anguish of Énée’s predicament evinced by Mr. Hymel’s almost exaggeratedly immediate enunciation of the words and rocketing top C.
Jérusalem, Verdi’s adaptation of his 1843 opera I Lombardi alla prima crociata, was first performed in Paris in 1847, when the rôle of Gaston was sung by Gilbert Duprez, whose storied career encompassed pioneering use of the do di petto and creation of no fewer than five rôles for Donizetti. Gaston’s aria ‘Je veux encore entendre ta voix’ receives from Mr. Hymel a powerful performance that serves as a brilliant homage to Duprez, his phrasing disclosing a mastery of Verdi’s melodic lines that is sure to prove especially beneficial as his career progresses. Verdi again devoted his talents to competing with French composers of Grand Opéra on their own turf with his 1855 Les vêpres siciliennes, still more familiar to audiences in its Italian incarnation. Henri in Les vêpres siciliennes is another part in which Mr. Hymel has shone in London, his participation in the Royal Opera House production having been documented by Warner Classics in new DVD and Blu-ray releases. He here sings Henri’s ‘Ô jour de peine et de souffrance’ stunningly, both his rhythmic precision and accuracy of intonation unerring. From this point, however, the abundance of interpolated top notes, though generally effective and unfailingly exciting, becomes rather wearying. The profligacy of Mr. Hymel’s excursions into his upper register brings to mind Beverly Sills’s over-enthusiastic ornamentation and flights of fancy on high in bel canto repertory: as with Sills’s trills, roulades, and interpolations in alt, there is no doubt of Mr. Hymel’s singular comfort in his voice’s upper extremities, but the high notes sometimes distract from the thoughtful molding of melodic lines of which he is capable when not focusing primarily on preparing for the next vault above the staff. Mr. Hymel is too good a singer to be showcased principally as a vocal high-wire act.
Adoniram’s magnificent ‘Inspirez-moi, race divine!’ from Gounod’s 1862 La reine de Saba provides Mr. Hymel with a direct connection to the city of his birth, the music’s first interpreter, Louis Guéymard, having found time in a busy career of creating rôles for Gounod, Halévy, Meyerbeer, and Verdi to sing in Mr. Hymel’s native New Orleans in the 1873 – 1874 Season. The esteem in which he was held by the important composers of his time indicates that Guéymard was a fantastic singer, but could he possibly have matched his Twenty-First-Century successor’s singing of ‘Inspirez-moi, race divine’? In this performance, Mr. Hymel fashions a heady, appropriately visionary traversal of the aria, his tones placed with the exactness of the blows of a sculptor’s chisel.
Throughout the history of recorded sound, Vasco da Gama’s ‘Ô paradis sorti de l'onde’ from Meyerbeer’s 1865 epic L'Africaine has been a favorite piece of tenors stepping before microphones. Enrico Caruso was among the first singers to record the number, his 1907 recording—sung in Italian, naturally—setting a standard challenged but never surpassed in subsequent decades by Pertile, Gigli, Bergonzi, and other singers. Richard Tucker, Plácido Domingo, and Franco Bonisolli are among the few renowned tenors of the past half-century to have sung Vasco on stage, but Mr. Hymel’s sonorously heroic singing of ‘Ô paradis’ raises the hope that he, too, will have opportunities to sing the rôle in full. Massenet’s 1881 biblical extravaganza Hérodiade is fortunately slightly more frequently performed than L'Africaine, but the superb aria for Jean, ‘Ne pouvant réprimer les élans de la foi,’ is seldom sung as rhapsodically as Mr. Hymel sings it on this disc, his legato highlighting the fluidity of Massenet’s melodic writing.
Mr. Hymel closes the chronologically-ordered programme of Héroïque with three arias from less-familiar exemplars of Grand Opéra’s transition from the Nineteenth to the Twentieth Century. ‘Esprits, gardiens de ces lieux’ from Reyer’s 1884 Sigurd, an opera based upon the same source material as Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, is a sprawling number that combines the power of Wagner’s Siegmund with the range of Gounod’s Faust. Though the two men were contemporaries, Reyer’s compositional idiom could hardly be more different from Wagner’s, but Sigurd is a work of considerable histrionic power that deserves to be performed more frequently. Like Wagner’s operas, though, Sigurd is a score so demanding that casting it with singers capable of doing it justice is almost unimaginable. Mr. Hymel is more than capable of delivering a sterling account of the hero’s ‘Esprits, gardiens de ces lieux,’ but he does much more than that here. Likewise, he gives Dominique’s ‘Adieu, fôret profonde’ from Bruneau’s 1893 L'attaque du moulin—like Massenet’s Hérodiade, a work in the inaugural performance of which the famous tenor Edmond Vergnet participated—a sensitive but red-blooded performance, phrasing with elegance that injects Gallic poise into even the most brawny passages. The vivid imagery in ‘Chante, vieux jardin, ta chanson de cigales’ from Rabaud’s 1934 Rolande et le mauvais garçon is illuminated by the warm glow of Mr. Hymel’s singing, this forgotten piece ending the disc with a display of genuine vocal distinction.
One of the foremost pleasures of Héroïque is hearing French texts sung so unaffectedly. Many native speakers of French do not sing the language as well as Mr. Hymel does in the selections on this disc. Both in this regard and in his ability to maintain the purity of French vowels at all dynamic levels and in all registers, he is the obvious successor to such esteemed Francophone singers as Georges Thill, Albert Lance, and Alain Vanzo. Having been acclaimed in New York in the seasons since his triumphant MET début in Les Troyens as Puccini’s Pinkerton and Rodolfo—a rôle to which he is scheduled to return in the MET’s 2015 – 2016 Season—and being rumored to be engaged for the 2016 – 2017 Season to sing Arnold in the first MET performances of Guillaume Tell since 1931, Bryan Hymel is an artist who is building a remarkable career on his own terms. Héroïque is a reflection of this, but the disc’s most valuable attribute is the quality of the singing. Héroïque is a sadly unusual instance of promise resplendently fulfilled.
Voix d’or: American tenor Bryan Hymel, a true ténor Héroïque [Photo by Dario Acosta, © 2015 by Warner Classics]