Cher Public

Fresh princes

Imagine two tenors releasing French opera aria collections at the same time without duplicating a single track! And wasn’t I relieved that I wasn’t going to have to sit through an ad hoc francophile singing competition:  anything you can sing I can sing sweeter or higher or louder.

These two discs actually serve as almost perfect complements to each other since they show their performers in a flattering light, with both tenors offering skillful and distinctive interpretations of the arias included.

Piotr Beczala (The French Collection on Deutsche Grammophon) and Bryan Hymel (Héroique on Warner Classics) rose to prominence within just a few years of each other even though Mr. Hymel is 15 years younger than his more veteran colleague.

Beczala, a student of none other than the great Sena Jurinac. served his galley years in Linz beginning in 1992 but didn’t leap to a truly international career until 2004. He’s racked up an impressive number of performances at the Met starting from 2008 where his full lyric tenor has been enjoyed in many of the standard repertory showpieces like Lucia, Boheme, Rigoletto, a very lyric Prince in Dvorak’s Rusalka and a particularly heartfelt Lenski in Eugene Onegin.

Hymel, who’s matriculated through the better schools and young artists programs, has been showered with awards, began singing small roles with his hometown New Orleans Opera in 1998 and started the career international in 2007 making his Covent Garden debut as Don José in 2010. In 2012 he came to the rescue of, not one but, two major productions of Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens, first replacing Jonas Kaufmann at Covent Garden, who had been felled by infection, and then taking over at the Met after Marcello Giordani decided that the role of Eneé was no longer in his command. Covent Garden has continued to woo Mr. Hymel by mounting productions of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable and Verdi’s original Les Vêpres Siciliennes to showcase his formidable gifts.

Héroique is aptly titled, with concise liner notes invoking the names of every great tenor to ascend the French lyric stage starting with Adolphe Nourrit through Gilbert Duprez, Jean de Reszke, George Thill and finally Nicolai Gedda in the modern era. Hymel doesn’t suffer at all by the comparison, for his is surely the type of instrument great French 19th century composers would have appreciated. His youthful, lightly burnished tone and clarion top, wedded to old-school expansive phrasing, make every track on his recording a delight.

If you enjoy your tenors with extra high-notes, you’ve come to the right place, my friends. Hymel starts his recital off with a literal bang by capping his very fine interpretation of Rossini’s lung busting  “Asile héréditaire” from Guillaume Tell with a C above the staff that clocks in at exactly 10 seconds long. So spectacular is this note that it might have seemed mere vulgar display dad it not been preceded by his eloquent interpretation of the aria proper.  All is justly heroic in the context of the aria and certainly in the character of the vengeful Arnold.

He goes from strength to strength on the remaining tracks. An elegiac “Nature immense”  from the Berlioz Damnation de Faust is followed by arias from Verdi’s Jérusalem and Vêpres—  both a la francaise—revealing Mr. Hymel’s skills in the come-hither melismas of the first and the arching phrases of the second, both garnished with high C’s, naturally.

Gounod’s Le Reine de Saba and Massenet’s Herodiade also get a welcome dust off here with generous interpretations that once again found me, on the high notes, reaching for the stopwatch.  Along about “O Paradis” from Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine (given with a cabaletta you may not have known existed) Mr. Hymel actually eases off the accelerator a bit at the start of each new phrase and gives us a soupcon of tenderness that might perhaps have been lacking from the aforementioned selections.

The centerpiece of the recording is, of course, his performance of Enée’s great Act V scene from Les Troyens. If it doesn’t quite capture the frisson of either of his extraordinary live performances, he is certainly not to be faulted for that. In the recording studio he’s much more meticulous about dynamics and rhythmic whereas in the videos from Covent Garden and the Met, his voice takes a well-deserved victory lap.

Arias from Reyer’s Sigurd, Bruneau’s L’Attaque de moulin, and Rabaud’s Roland et le mauvais garcon complete the program. All three, surprisingly lovely, were obviously lying dormant awaiting the proper interpreter. The impassioned performances they receive here more than warrant their exhumation.

Emmanuel Villaume guides with a sure hand and sustains the excellent support of the PKF-Prague Philharmonia, whose playing is truly exciting at times. Thankfully, Warner Classics realized that performances of this caliber deserved to be placed in proper musical context and therefore employed the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno to provide stirring backup.

If Beczala’s playlist errs on the side of traditional choices he more than makes up for them with the sensitivity and beauty of his performances. Liner notes once again invoking Jean de Reszke (Mr. Beczala’s Polish compatriot) and Bjorling and Gedda as modern stylistic examples.

They also talk frankly about the trouble he has had with the top of his voice, a hint of may be heard here. You can tell that he’s had to work for what he has more so than some whose gifts come easier to them. That said, there’s a wide range of technical skill evidenced in these performances. In fact we find a very welcome bit of voix mixte on display here, first in his Berlioz Damnation selection and then at the exquisitely unrushed climax to his Carmen Flower Song.  True, the bellows the top C in the Faust aria, but you can’t have everything.

Two Massenet selections launch the disc,Werther’s “Pourquoi me réveiller” and an ‘Ô Souverain’ from Le Cid of such imposing quality it left me farklempt. A second Berlioz selection, from Béatrice et Bénédict, finds him both conversational and playful.

The long lines of the Fontainbleau scene from Don Carlos seemingly test Beczala’s lyric limits but he does offer a very lovely trill in its closing cadenza. An extended scene from Boieldieu’s Le Dame blanche boasts some lovely downward cascades followed by graceful leaps above the staff. The exquisite piano reprise at the final coda tempt you to press the rewind button more than once.

Donizetti’s French work is represented by an unhurried, ardent “Ange si pur” from La Favorite and the “Ange céleste” from Dom Sébastien which finds him in the most robust voice of the entire recital.

The selections lack choral support,  though there’s  a star cameo appearance in the final track from Diana Damrau. They tear into the Manon “Toi! Vous!” to sensual and amorous effect.

Alain Altinoglu and the Ochestre de L’Opera National de Lyon who certainly know their way about these pieces and boast very supple playing with excellent transparency in the string sections.

The study of contrasts here is fascinating. I have to give Beczala the edge for his clean French diction—especially his é and â vowels, which find Mr. Hymel only “correct.”  It’s also interesting to hear Hymel striving for a masculine, mature sound throughout while Bezcala endeavors to preserve the youthful beauty in his tone. The cover art too is, frankly, an amusing study in contrasts: Beczala beaming with charm before the tricouleur while Hymel glowers in sepia gloom.

No fan of either of these great singers would possibly be disappointed with these performances and since they offer absolutely no overlap in their tracks you shouldn’t hesitate to add both to your collection.