Vocal Heroics From Two Stars: Heppner and Voigt in Top Form

As a journalist who covered everything from race riots to Supreme Court nominations before turning to cultural subjects, I sometimes wonder whether writing about the glories of classical music isn’t a bit off the mark when the world is marching to the different drumbeats of natural disaster, terror and political chicanery. But when I attend an event like the gala concert at Avery Fisher Hall the other night, I realize that I’m covering the biggest, most enduring story of all: the indomitable human spirit.

The concert celebrated Lincoln Center’s Great Performers Series, and the top tickets went for $1,500—many of them bought by representatives of the evening’s chief sponsor, the Altria packaged-food conglomerate. This kind of event usually offers about as much nourishment as Altria’s product line, which includes Marlboro cigarettes, Kool-Aid and Velveeta macaroni-and-cheese dinners. But this gala was different: It featured a larger-than-usual Orchestra of St. Luke’s, conducted with great élan by a young Israeli maestro, Asher Fisch, and two of the finest singers in the world, the American soprano Deborah Voigt and the Canadian tenor Ben Heppner. The program of works by Beethoven, Weber and Wagner pushed indomitable to the limit.

It was disheartening to see so many empty seats after the intermission—an exodus, I imagine, of corporate minions whose capacity for great music has been diminished by too many Oreo jingles. Those who stayed were treated to an evening that combined vocal heroics with genuine musical news.

The news came on two fronts. Ever since Mr. Heppner’s triumphant opening night at the Met last season in the title role of Verdi’s Otello, he’s been widely viewed as the rightful heir to Plácido Domingo, the world’s greatest dramatic tenor. (Not that Mr. Domingo, who’s in his mid-60’s, is quite ready to abdicate.) But worries persist that Mr. Heppner’s beautiful, plangent instrument doesn’t have quite the mettle to keep him in the throne for long. Opera lovers remember the excruciating, cracked high notes in his performances in the Met’s Die Meistersinger a few years before Otello and his subsequent shocking loss of nearly 100 pounds.

Judging from his performance at Lincoln Center, Mr. Heppner’s claim to the title is secure. He’s regained much of his old weight and looked healthy and majestic, complete with a doughty sea captain’s whiskers. His keening lyricism has never sounded sweeter than it did during the Act II love duet from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. His reading of Max’s Act I aria from Weber’s Der Freischütz shone with youthful buoyancy. He sailed through the killer “Prize Song” from Meistersinger with an ease that bordered on gleefulness. The ardor he brought to the last scene of Wagner’s Siegfried suggested that he may one day take on this most punishing of tenor roles without destroying his career. Throughout the evening, his enjoyment was palpable. In the opera world, “Heppner Is Happy” is a banner headline.

Wagnerians ask themselves the perennial question: Who’s the next Brünnhilde? The heroine of Wagner’s Ring cycle is reserved for utterly fearless sopranos, a species as scarce as the ivory-billed woodpecker. In recent years, only Jane Eaglen has convincingly approached the role’s vocal and physical demands, but with her enormous girth and steely sound, the British soprano has been more impressive than bewitching in a part that requires both knock-’em-down exuberance and heart-breaking vulnerability.

For some time now, the eyes of Brünnhilde spotters have been on Ms. Voigt, whose steady rise as one of the world’s great dramatic sopranos has been accompanied by another much-publicized dramatic decrease in weight. When she sang Leonore’s great Act I aria from Beethoven’s Fidelio, “Abscheulicher, wo eilst duh hin?” (“Monster! Where are you hurrying?”), she was cheered as much for the triumph of her physical transformation (she wore a shapely black-and-white ensemble) as for her eloquent interpretation of Leonore’s passage from fury to hope.

The soprano showed where she’s heading when she reappeared to sing with Mr. Heppner the Act II love duet from Tristan und Isolde. (Watching over the illicit lovers from an upper balcony was Margaret Jane Wray’s powerfully sung Brangäne.) Isolde is the last stepping-stone to Brünnhilde, and Ms. Voigt, who sang the role with great success in Vienna in 2003, conveyed the almost demented ecstasy of the piece while maintaining a scrupulous balance between intelligibility and beauty of sound. Most Wagnerian sopranos—even the greatest postwar Isolde, Birgit Nilsson—unleash this music. With Ms. Voigt, it all comes out as naturally as though she’s a grown-up Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” on the road to Oz.

For me, the qualities that distinguish the great American soprano voices from those of their foreign peers—I’m thinking of singers like Eleanor Steber, Eileen Farrell and Leontyne Price—are open-hearted healthiness and a two-feet-on-the-ground intelligence that shines in even the most tragic moments. Ms. Voigt has just released a wonderful new album entitled All My Heart (Angel/EMI), a program of American songs by Ives, Bernstein, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Amy Beach and the contemporary American composer Ben Moore, for whose droll, deceptive simplicities she seems to have a special affinity. Her pianist is the delicately resourceful Brian Zeger, and the two of them approach this quirky, delightful play list with clear-eyed, casual elegance. After the intermission at Avery Fisher, Ms. Voigt welcomed the audience back with Elisabeth’s joyful “Dich, teure Halle” (“You, Dear Hall”) from Tannhäuser, which she sang with the celebratory directness of Kate Smith’s “God Bless America.”

Finally, she ascended to Brünnhilde’s throne when she joined Mr. Heppner in the duet from the conclusion of Siegfried. Ms. Voigt recorded opera’s most transcendent awakening scene five years ago with Plácido Domingo. At Tanglewood last summer, she unveiled another side of Brünnhilde in a concert performance of the immolation scene from Die Gotterdämmerung with James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Now, as she voiced her gratitude to Mr. Heppner’s Siegfried for braving the ring of Magic Fire, she showed that she has all the yearning feminine tenderness that also characterizes the leader of the Valkyries.

Ms. Voigt has not yet announced when she’ll tackle the whole three-evening role. But she certainly has signaled that the next Brünnhilde is here.

Vocal Heroics From Two Stars: Heppner and Voigt in Top Form