Benjamin Bernheim, Boulevard des Italiens – Deutsche Grammophon – CD Review

Hailed by the critics, favorably received by the public, qualified here by Sylvain Fort as “so-dé-rant”… It is an understatement to say about the success met by the first album of Benjamin Bernheim. The first attempt had the value of a masterstroke. All that remained was to transform it, renew a subject which, standing out from the previous program, would avoid the laborious succession of standards of the repertoire and would however contain a handful of well-known titles likely to hold the attention of a less initiated public.

The cooperation with the Palazzetto Bru Zane made it possible to overcome the obstacle. Entitled “Boulevard des Italiens”, the lyrical attraction of 19th century Paris serves as the pretext for an anthology of opera arias composed in French by transalpine musicians: Spontini, Cherubini, Donizetti, Mascagni, Verdi. Exception to the rule: Puccini present through two airs not originally written in our language but translated then imposed by a tradition which thus compensated for the absence of the now essential subtitles. Two major absentees from this selection: Rossini and Bellini, although Parisians at the time but whose agility in writing was not Benjamin Bernheim’s primary concern. To breathtaking acrobatics and notes launched above the staff, the tenor prefers long curved lines to be drawn in a single breath as if breathing were only a detail.

So in Daughter of the Regimentit was not “For my soul” with its nine high Cs that was retained, but the romance of 2and act “To get closer to Mary”, sung without perticchini but transcended by the constant attention paid to the pronunciation and articulation of the text. What diction! It is no coincidence that the affinities between Benjamin Bernheim and the French language participated in the choice of the program. A matter of taste perhaps, but it seems to us that the timbre of the tenor unfolds there more clearly than in Italian opera.

If it were necessary to attribute a color to this sovereign voice, following the example of Rimbaud’s vowels, then blue would prevail. Cobalt blue, harsh, intense and saturated with harmonics in the two extracts of Don Carlos – the tune of 1is act and duet of 2and or Florian Sempey brings the counterpoint of a comforting youthful baritone. The Infante’s desperate romanticism is not so often translated with such nobility.

Ultramarine blue to express Fernand’s languid disillusion in Favorite – and one can choose to find the high C too strong for an aria of Belcantist filiation or, conversely, of a conquering virility capable of enhancing an otherwise bland portrait.

Royal blue – inevitably – in the cavatina of Dom Sébastien when the monarch, abandoned on the battlefield, experiences the loneliness of power in a superb cantilena whose melancholy is matched only by the elegance of the phrasing.

Still blue but tinged with green – Verdi obliges – in Jerusalemthe French revival ofThe Lombards at the prize-winning crusadewhere the treble radiates before adopting in conclusion a compromise between head and chest of an ineffable softness.

And indigo blue, rich and deep, for the air of Sicilian Vespers intended in 1863 for Pierre-Francois Villaret, in place of “O day of pain and suffering” too dramatic no doubt for a singer whose voice was said to lend itself wonderfully to sweet melodies.

Blue in which we immerse ourselves with even more interest when the program approaches less familiar shores. Cherubini, Spontini, a early 19th century a priori devolved to a tenor of less romantic style, even comic opera. However, there again, Benjamin Bernheim’s song calls for all superlatives – and precious, bluish metaphors: sapphire, lapis lazuli, turquoise – with a mastery of halftones, a freedom in the use of the mixed voice which avoids the pitfall of too summary a characterization.

At the other end of the time scale, Friend, Mascagni’s only French-language opera, created in Monte-Carlo in 1905, offers, despite its veristic genome, the opportunity to once again exhibit a blue camouflage of remarkable subtlety. Benjamin Bernheim is not one of those tenors who sing hand in hand with an open throat. Fans of wild outbursts will be able to reproach him for his temperance which, on the contrary, is characteristic of French singing, where intelligence takes precedence over instinct.

Less essential, the two arias by Puccini, translated therefore, are a curiosity.

French conductor at the head of an Italian ensemble, in accordance with the spirit of the program, Frederic Chaslin conducts with all possible care an Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna that one would sometimes like to shake up more to stimulate the pleasure one feels in contemplating this admirable azure.

Leave a Comment