A tenor's Met Opera debut, long delayed, is worth the wait

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A tenor's Met Opera debut, long delayed, is worth the wait
Benjamin Bernheim at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Nov. 7, 2022. Bernheim is starring as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Met through Dec. 8. (Dina Litovsky/The New York Times)

by Joshua Barone

NEW YORK, NY.- It took a few tries for Benjamin Bernheim to make his Metropolitan Opera debut.

Having sung on the major stages of Europe — in London, Paris, Vienna and elsewhere — this French tenor (and champion of the French repertoire) was meant to arrive at the Met in 2020, in Charles Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette.” Once the pandemic wiped out live performance for most of that year, as well as the one to come, it was time for another plan.

And now, after a few false starts, after navigating the complicated logistics of opera and making adjustments to spend time with his daughter in Zurich, Bernheim is starring as the Duke of Mantua in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto” through Dec. 8.

“If you think of it like tennis and the Grand Slams, the Met was sort of the last,” he said in a recent interview, referring to that sport’s largest, most high-profile tournaments.

Not every singer who has built a reputation in Europe is a fit for the Met, which like many American houses is cavernous by comparison. Voices either work there or they don’t.

Bernheim is a natural.

His tone is a pliant one — most often gracefully sumptuous but also agile and, crucially for the Met, penetrating at both a boom and a whisper. Reviewing Bernheim’s debut Thursday, critic Oussama Zahr wrote in The New York Times that “his middle voice, elegant and ringing as on the recordings, rises into an upper register of an entirely different quality, and that’s when it gets exciting. He’s a lyric tenor who roars on top with genuinely thrilling, auditorium-filling sound.”

“Rigoletto” won’t be the only showcase for Bernheim’s voice at the Met. Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, said that he is scheduled to return next season — in “Roméo,” at last — and that the house is hoping to bring him back for more roles in the near future. (Works that Bernheim is hoping to add to his repertoire in the coming years include Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” and “Don Carlos,” in the original French, of course.)

For now, New York audiences can get acquainted with Bernheim through the Duke, in an interpretation that goes against the grain of many from the Met’s past. In the interview, he discussed why and reflected on his debut. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: How have you adjusted your voice to perform at the Met?

A: The Met feels very different in terms of the colors that you can do. This is one of, I don’t want to say my specialties, but things that I do — especially in French repertoire, because it calls for playing with all the colors in my voice. In some places, it’s really comfortable, and in some places, I have to recalibrate my voice and my projection. And I am very flexible, like a Formula One driver: Every circuit is different.

Q: What does that mean exactly?

A: In Vienna, where I sang the Duke a month ago, I feel that the entirety of my voice responds in the same way. At the Met, I have to calibrate. I tried a new approach of singing at the Met that is much narrower; I had to adjust my voice to make it work. What I want to do when I’m onstage, more than being a vocal singer, is be a storyteller. And with the Duke, I see a man who has been raised in a court, raised to be strong, to have no weakness, to be very eloquent, very knowledgeable. It has to show a lot of elegance in the singing; there is this noblesse in his blood. He has to be an orateur, someone who knows how to attract a crowd. For me, the most important thing, wherever I sing, is to bring the breadth and elegance of the phrase to the audience, and every house translates it in a different way.

Q: It’s interesting to hear you describe the role like that, because it comes out, I think, in the most famous aria, “La donna è mobile,” which a lot of tenors treat as a preening showpiece but you play with coolness.

A: I agree, and this is my version of the Duke. I also think that the Duke, in comparison to what people think, is a much more sad person, a very lonely person. He is alone on the top of his throne, and when you’re on the top, there is no one you can talk to. I also think that he lives as a seducer as a big way of protecting himself.

I don’t know if this is something real, but I decided to take it. In one of those Avant-Scène Opéra books in France, I read from a musicologist that according to Verdi’s librettist, “La donna è mobile” has to be seen as the little favorite song of the Duke, like his motto. And this would make sense. He falls in love with Gilda, and this is a way to come back to his Duke center. I imagine that his uncle, his father, his big brother or cousin taught him this song when he was a little boy to say: “Do not go too close. Do not get attached. Keep it easy. If not, you’re going to get hurt.”

Q: That could explain why, then, you are most emotive when the Duke is alone in the second act.

A: Yes. What is he doing when he’s alone? I found it nice and vulnerable of the Duke not to sit on his throne but go in an almost fetal position. I don’t think he is really in pain, but with Gilda, there is a big question mark, suddenly a doubt. And for the audience, maybe hope that he will meet love for the first time. When people come, he doesn’t want to see them; he wants to be with his thoughts. That’s why I think it’s good to see him alone. He shows his power, but alone he is a little boy. You see the man with his contradictions.

And for “La donna è mobile,” it’s interesting to see a man thinking and trying to make the words mean something for him. I’m sure a lot of people are waiting for that to be a shiny moment. But I’m a storyteller, and I like to bring this layer. It’s important to have a new color of this role in New York. It’s been sung by all the great tenors of the world here. This is my version of it, and we will see how people respond.

Q: When you come back, it will be in a French opera, which makes up much of your repertoire.

A: I used to do the kids’ choir in Geneva, and I heard a lot of people singing French, but it did not make sense to me — to sing French like that, with a rolled R and in a way that I couldn’t understand. I really didn’t like the French repertoire for a long time, until I heard Natalie Dessay and Roberto Alagna.

The tradition of French grand opera is difficult to place in houses today, but I would like to bring it back to something that is more reachable, to bring that back to the audience. It’s not the thing that I sing best, but it’s the thing that I want to support and represent more. Sometimes it closes a door, but this is something that I really want to do.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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