Heppner Now Reigning Otello As Domingo Relinquishes Role

In opera, the passing of the torch from one great singer to another is rarely as clear-cut as we like to think. At what point in the 1920’s, exactly, did Giovanni Martinelli inherit the dramatic tenor’s throne from Enrico Caruso? Or Birgit Nilsson the Wagnerian soprano’s crown from Kirsten Flagstad three decades later? Unusually, the opening night of the Met’s new season marked an unmistakable succession: The Canadian tenor Ben Heppner replaced Plácido Domingo as the reigning Otello of the day.

The tortured protagonist of Verdi’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy is, by dint of its immense vocal and dramatic challenges, the pinnacle of the Italian tenor repertory. (Its counterpart in the German repertory is Wagner’s Tristan.) Since Otello ’s premiere at La Scala in 1887, the role has been dominated by one or two tenors in each generation—from Francesco Tamagno, the first Otello, to Giovanni Zenatello, Leo Slezak, Martinelli, Ramon Vinay, Mario del Monaco, James McCracken and Jon Vickers. In the past quarter-century, Mr. Domingo made the role virtually his own, giving well more than 200 performances all over the world as the Moor of Venice. It’s a part that plays perfectly to his strengths—stamina, a clarion upper register, a fluency with broad legato phrases and theatrical electricity.

Mr. Heppner, the leading Tristan of our time, has virtues of a different order. If the Spaniard’s voice is dark, supple leather, the Canadian’s is bright copper, less malleable but with a burnished shine that can irradiate an orchestral forest with shafts of light. He belongs to the northern camp of tenors, whose most celebrated members have been Lauritz Melchior, Jussi Bjoerling, Nicolai Gedda and Mr. Heppner’s compatriot, Jon Vickers. Mr. Domingo is in the southern line—from Caruso to Franco Corelli to Luciano Pavarotti.

On a purely theatrical level, Messrs. Domingo and Heppner are also very different animals. Onstage, Mr. Domingo moves like a tensely coiled cat, preternaturally alert to everything and everyone around him; no singer, as his films and videos attest, has ever used his eyes more eloquently. Mr. Heppner, by contrast, is a lumbering bear whose body language does not register the play of emotions with quicksilver immediacy. And yet he exudes a steady, implacable urgency—the sense that the singer is overcoming inborn frailty with titanic effort. In a review of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, the critic Stark Young wrote that he was moved less by the play itself than by the “cost to the dramatist.” With Mr. Heppner, I have often been more stirred by what it apparently takes for him to release those commanding high notes than by the suffering of his character.

In recent years, that cost has become troubling. During a run of Die Meistersinger at the Met a few years ago, Mr. Heppner’s “Prize Songs” earned a prize for the frequency with which he cracked in the upper register. At the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2001, I heard him in his first American Otello, and his vocal uncertainties were painfully evident. That he had become grossly overweight can only have added to his discomfort. But then Mr. Heppner (who is diabetic) went on a crash diet and dropped something like 100pounds. When he reappeared at the Met a year later in The Trojans, he looked healthier, but his voice seemed to have lost, well, meat. This year, for his first Met Otello, he’s regained much (but not all) of the weight he’d lost, and from the moment he appeared in the first scene to declare victory over that fearful storm off Cyprus, he seemed happy to be back to his old self.

With the memory of Mr. Domingo’s Otellos still fresh, it was difficult to readjust to this more towering, less kinetic figure in the Tintoretto-like chiaroscuro of Elijah Moshinsky’s production. Mr. Heppner was singing the entire part as originally written by Verdi (Mr. Domingo, in his most recent appearances, had sung the punishing high passages transposed down), and he seemed chiefly concerned with projecting a vocal authority that could tame not only that storm, but also the supercharged playing of the Met Orchestra under James Levine. Moreover, Mr. Heppner’s Desdemona (an elegant and icy Barbara Frittoli) and Iago (a generically villainous Carlo Guelfi) didn’t offer much dramatic friction. In any event, during the first two acts, which were played without an intermission, he seemed to be looking at the part rather than inhabiting it—more stunned to find himself singing Otello so handsomely than devastated by Iago’s treacherous insinuations.

During the last two acts, however, he came fully into his own. His crazy bursts of violence at his wife (a newly galvanized Ms. Frittoli now playing with an affecting dignity) escalated into a state of near-dementia that I don’t recall Mr. Domingo ever quite achieving. He committed the murder with somnambulistic intensity and expressed his anguish over the horror of what he had done with an eerily quiet acceptance that was shattering. Mr. Heppner is one of those big men who seem sensitive to the damage their heft can inflict—one hears it, too, in the grainy plaintiveness of his voice—and I have never seen him use his sheer size to such powerful, complex advantage. The applause for his triumph was as heartfelt as any I have heard at a Met opening night in years: The torch had been passed.

Mr. Domingo himself attended a gala dinner later that evening, during which he reportedly praised Mr. Heppner’s performance to Joseph Volpe, the Met’s general manager. (I am currently helping Mr. Volpe—who will be retiring in 2006 after 42 years at the Met—to write his memoirs.) Opera’s iron man is now in his mid-60’s and still singing well—and wisely enough to have relinquished his greatest role. (He’s currently singing at the Met as Siegmund in Die Walküre and next May will take the title role in Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac.) In his conversation with Mr. Volpe, Mr. Domingo added that he had felt relieved to be right where he was on opening night—not onstage in the throes of Verdi’s greatest Shakespearean opera, but out in the audience with the rest of us.