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Héroïque - French opera arias
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Guillaume Tell: Ne m’abandonne point, espoir de la vengeance [12:49]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
La Damnation de Faust: Nature immense [5:47]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Jérusalem: L’Émir auprès de lui m’appelle [5:33]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Les Vêpres siciliennes: C’est Guy de Montfort! [9:58]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Les Troyens: Inutiles regrets [6:13]
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
La Reine de Saba: Faiblesse de la race humaine! [5:34]
Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864) L’Africaine: Pays merveilleux [7:07]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Hérodiade: Ne pouvant réprimer les élans de la foi! [5:47]
Ernest REYER (1823-1909)
Sigurd: Le bruit des chants s’éteint [5:23]
Alfred BRUNEAU (1857-1934)
L’Attaque du moulin: Le jour tombe [4:35]
Henri RABAUD (1873-1934)
Rolande et le mauvais garçon: Chante, vieux jardin, ta chanson [4:04]
Bryan Hymel (tenor)
Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno
Prague Philharmonia/Emmanuel Villaume
rec. 2014, Smetana Hall, Prague
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 617950 [72:54]

Like many others I first heard of Bryan Hymel when he stood in for an indisposed Jonas Kaufmann in the demanding part of Énée (Aeneas) in Berlioz’ Les Troyens in the Covent Garden production of 2012. Regrets for Kaufmann were banished by Hymel’s supreme command of the role. He later repeated his triumph in the Metropolitan Opera production, which I saw on live cinema transmission. So when this, his first recital disc, appeared I really wanted to hear it even though recital discs of this kind are not normally my area.

This one is entirely given over to arias from the French heroic repertory. It is an irony of fate that Les Troyens, once considered an unperformable curiosity, is almost the best-known work here. Furthermore, the Rossini aria is given in its original French, as is the one from Verdi’s Les Vêpres siciliennes, so not I Vespri siciliani, while that from his Jérusalem represents the French version of I Lombardi. The others are much less well known, because of the decline in popularity of French grand opera, or maybe because of the shortage of singers who can manage the leading roles. As Sarah Hibberd explains in her illuminating programme note these dramatized episodes from history and the heroes had to command a wide emotional range. They need to be thoughtful but also passionate, with great stamina and also with an extended upper range as the tessitura was higher than that of contemporary Italian opera heroes.

All this Hymel can offer but the first thing which strikes you once the disc is playing is simply the great beauty of his voice in quiet passages. His production is absolutely smooth with a lovely bloom on the sound which only disappears in the most strenuous passages. His phrasing and rhythm are good and he clearly understands the words though I have to say that his French pronunciation is no more than adequate. Hymel is American and French seems a particularly hard language for non-native speakers to sing entirely convincingly – the vowels, which should be pure, tend to become diphthongs as in English. The display aspects of these pieces are well attended to and the high notes really ring out.

The Rossini aria shows all these qualities. I can also record sound orchestral support from the Prague Philharmonia under Emmanuel Villaume and the presence of a chorus when it is required. The recording is very good indeed: full and rich with confident playing of brass fanfares and the like suggesting that, however surprised the Prague Philharmonia might have been to be presented with this assignment, they did have time to rehearse. Hymel is obviously balanced forward but not obtrusively so.

In the aria from Les Troyens I noticed Hymel’s command of the emotional journey made: starting with anxiety and moving through regret and memory finally to resolution. He did not seem to me to give any points to Vickers, in the first Colin Davis complete recording. The other Berlioz aria is from La Damnation de Faust and here I did think he was less subtle than Gedda, again with Davis.

Of the other arias I was particularly curious to hear the Meyerbeer, though I remain mystified by the mixture of bombast and innocent tunes which make up this number. Massenet’s lyrical version of John the Baptist from Hérodiade is much more attractive, as is Reyer’s Sigurd, whose musings in the forest have no points in common with his equivalent in Wagner, Siegfried. Many of these arias seem hardly known but none of them are without some point of interest. Maybe the emergence of Hymel as a tenor who can manage these lead roles will lead to more of them being mounted in the opera house.

The whole recital has been most carefully planned and the several arias are presented in what appears to be their proper chronological sequence. The booklet offers full texts and translations in three languages. In the past the record companies would have fallen over one another to snap Hymel up. In these straitened times we must be grateful to Warner for stepping forward. That gratitude also extends to the several sponsors – over a dozen are listed – who made this project possible. In time this will be a collectors’ piece.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Michael Cookson (Recording of the Month)


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