Tenor Simon O’Neill brings the “Helden” to intimate recital for Dallas Opera

Mon Jan 28, 2019 at 11:20 am
By Wayne Lee Gay

Simon O’Neill performed a vocal recital Sunday night at Moody Performance Hall in Dallas. Photo: Karen Almond

“Art song recital” and “heldentenor” are two concepts we don’t often think of at the same time: the former is an event devoted to the concept of the miniature vocal form, with a singer collaborating with piano alone. The latter indicates a singer devoted to performances of Wagner and Richard Strauss on the operatic stage, accompanied by a larger-than-usual orchestra.

But Sunday afternoon, at the 750-seat Moody Performance Hall, New Zealand native Simon O’Neill, one of the leading heldentenors of our age, took the stage for the latest manifestation of the Dallas Opera’s Titus Art Song Recital Series, joined by his pianist (and fellow New Zealander) Terence Dennis. 

Not surprisingly, this was an art song recital with a difference, including four substantial opera excerpts, along with what might be viewed as heavyweight items from the literature of song. 

Beethoven’s cycle An die ferne Geliebte (“To the Distant Beloved”) opened the all-German program. O’Neill immediately presented the combination of assertiveness and heft typical of the heldentenor voice, in O’Neill’s case, burnished with a glowing tonal brilliance. 

Compositionally, An die ferne Geliebte leaps decades ahead of Beethoven’s contemporaries; the six songs are inseparably linked, providing the performers with an opportunity to build an impressive momentum. O’Neill and pianist Dennis accomplished this via careful attention to detail and Beethoven’s subtle tone-painting—for instance, in the surprising breaks in the accompaniment in the opening song, or the rippling piano passagework in “Leichte Segler in den Höhen.“  Although the poetry does not tell an on-going narrative, O’Neill and Dennis created a sense of dramatic urgency in their performance. 

The recitative and aria “Gott! Welch dunkel hier” from Beethoven’s Fidelio provided the first operatic excerpt of the afternoon. As in the preceding song cycle, pianist Dennis’ collaboration, this time in the reduction of the orchestral score, proved a worthy match for O’Neill’s vocal performance, communicating the agitation and agony of the imprisoned hero of the scene. Once again, as in the song cycle, O’Neill adapted the Wagnerian quality of his voice to the subtleties of Beethoven.

A section devoted to Richard Strauss likewise began with songs and closed with an operatic scene, demonstrating O’Neill’s ability to apply the burnished, muscular qualities of his Wagnerian voice to the broad emotional range of Strauss’s songs. 

He brought the required serene control to the sustained recitative of “Ruhe, meine Seele” (“Rest, My Soul”), but turned on the heat for “Caecilie,” the third of the four songs from Opus 27. There, he created an almost desperate ecstasy, backed up ably by Dennis’s navigation of the complex piano part. Yet another side of Strauss and of O’Neill came to the fore in the triumphant “Zweignung” (“Dedication”), which closed the group of Strauss songs. 

The long instrumental introduction of “Falke, du wiedergefundener” (“Falcon, thou rediscover”) from the opera Die Frau ohne Schatten once again showed off Dennis’s ability to convincingly create the aura of an entire orchestra (including a bird call) and provided a worthy preface for O’Neill’s exploration of that extended aria of rage and sorrow, landing on the agony of the climactic high A-flat.

Two familiar songs by Schumann, “Widmung” (“Dedication”) and “Du bist wie eine Blume” (“Thou art like a flower”) pulled the listener into more familiar art song recital territory to open the second half of the concert; the power of O’Neill’s voice gave a soaring depth to these early romantic miniatures, especially in the sudden shift of key and mood in “Widmung.” 

Thence, on to the home territory of any heldentenor with Siegfried’s death scene from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung; here O’Neill opened into full Wagnerian grandeur, then quietly exited while Dennis played the Funeral March in Busoni’s transcription for piano. 

The two then turned to a gentler, more reflective side of Wagner in the form of the Wesendonck Lieder; Dennis and O’Neill reveled here in the interplay of piano and voice, in the gentle counterpoint of “Schmerzen,“ and the murmuring pianissimo close of the final song, “Dreams.”

Sigmund’s brief, passionate aria “Winterstürme” from Act I of Wagner’s Die Walküre closed the concert, with O’Neill floating through the sustained phrases with solid command of the steadily rising passion. 

For an encore, O’Neil and Dennis turned to Strauss‘s lightning, subtly erotic lied “Breit’ über mein Haupt dein schwarzes Haar” (“Spread over my head your dark hair”), for one final demonstration of O’Neill’s extraordinary vocal power, beauty of tone, and breadth of expression and characterization.

One Response to “Tenor Simon O’Neill brings the “Helden” to intimate recital for Dallas Opera”

  1. Posted Jan 30, 2019 at 12:17 pm by Sarah

    Now THAT is an excellent review my friends!!!!

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