Thursday, December 27, 2012

Bryan Hymel's Met Debut

BERLIOZ: LES TROYENS                         Revival 
Metropolitan Opera 
26 December 2012

©Geoffrey Riggs

I heard Bryan Hymel's Metropolitan Opera debut as Enée in the house tonight, not over the internet. The voice in person has an uncommon clarity, although it's not as large as Heppner's or some other voices some of us are accustomed to hearing in this role.

He came on in the first act (for the purposes of this thumbnail review, Act I is the Met's Act I, which is Berlioz's Acts I and II, Act II Berlioz's Act III and IV, Act III Berlioz's Act V) sounding a bit tight, although there was a palpable surge of adrenalin the second he started singing, and his top was already "in focus". The tightness did not altogether leave him in his next scene (when alerted that Troy is on fire). But the line was getting smoother, somewhat.

In his first scene in Act II, when offering to defend Carthage, we had the first real magic moment of the evening, when one first knew this was someone special: Enée's farewell to his son before leaving for battle. The incorrigibly restless New York audience suddenly got very quiet, and the sweetness of Hymel's phrasing got to me. There was tenderness for his son and graveness in his accents combined. By the hushed dynamics for some of the words here, Hymel made this a moment when both father and son understand that Enée can always be killed in battle but will never ever acknowledge it: warm human feeling against a stern but very quiet warrior ethic. It's all there in Berlioz's music. I was trying to recall if anyone other than Vickers has ever evoked this so vividly. 

Even finer and more masterly in its expert dynamic control was the love duet at the end of Act II. The true legato line and the elasticity in the dynamics were exemplary throughout. Hymel has the knack of achieving a genuine full-throated climax within a phrase while maintaining authentic musical shape throughout. He appears the musician's musician. Now, this is a role he's done a number of times, and maybe a new role might not find him singing at such a sensitive level. But what he achieved in the duet had the stamp of musical as well as vocal assurance.

The last act was slightly less subtle, perhaps because of some coordination problems with the pit in the recit for the aria. But we had an elastic and flowing line for the first half of the aria. For the fast coda -- as close to a cabaletta as Berlioz has in this score -- Hymel showed he had the reserves to pull out all the stops with pingy top notes, including a glancing high C as written in the score, a prolonged top note before the final "desespoir", and a closing "desespoir" that seemed to last forever. Storms of applause: the kind of applause that points up the difference between grateful acknowledgement versus real excitement. This was decidedly the latter. After the aria, his voice did seem to break once or twice in the ensuing moments, but his top stayed sure. He did not maintain quite the consistent legato of the earlier scenes. However, he was out of his mind -- excitingly so -- when confronting the implacable ghosts and pleading with Didon to understand. When pleading with Cassandre, his voice even split open at the "Ca" of "Cassandre". But this may have merely been emotion. He stayed just as emotional and desperate with Didon, rendering more sobs here than I've ever heard from anyone else in this scene, singing half of the exchange on his knees, feverishly holding her hands. This was not as musical as formerly, but it was certainly exciting. He was also declaiming hysterically, occasionally, and I truly feared for the state of his voice. Perhaps, I shouldn't have worried. When it came time for his exit on "Italie", he produced a top note of almost epic length, clean and secure.

Again, his is not a big sound like Heppner's or Vickers'. Even the top notes are "zoned" rather than "wide". But the top tones do ring through the house, and he has the uncommon gift of conveying specific emotion in them. This is true through most of the voice. One rarely has the feeling that one is just hearing sounds. His Enée does not stir me as much as Heppner's or Vickers'. It does not have the expressive range of Vickers, nor the refulgent beauty of Heppner. But though no Frenchman (he's from Louisiana), in some uncanny way Hymel comes off as the most "French" singer of the three. His diction is marvelous and well schooled. He does not evoke the epic hero as readily as Vickers or Heppner, simply because his instrument is not as ample. But an affectingly human, and instinctively musical, Enée is a rare thing, and it's hard to imagine anyone else today doing this better. If I wanted to relate the impact of his voice to anyone else's in the house, perhaps that might be the young Neil Shicoff's in his prime. Can a voice like that last in this role? We'll see. Going by tonight, Hymel seems to have amazing resilience.

I know I'll be eager to hear him again, and I hope he becomes a regular visitor to New York.

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