Arts & Events

Heldentenor Simon O’Neill’s Hertz Hall Recital

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday December 04, 2017 - 04:00:00 PM

On Sunday afternoon, December 3, New Zealand-born tenor Simon O’Neill gave a recital at Hertz Hall. He was accompanied by fellow Kiwi Terence Dennis on piano. Both O’Neill and Dennis are much decorated artists with considerable international experience. For this recital they were also joined by the Pati brothers, Pene and Amitai Pati, who also hail from New Zealand.  

Simon O’Neill opened the program with Beethoven’s lengthy song “An die ferne Geliebte,” Op. 98. Before singing this piece O’Neill recalled how much he was moved by hearing a recording of “An die ferne Geliebte” by the late Fritz Wunderlich. I too am a great admirer of the singing of tenor Fritz Wunderlich, who possessed what was possibly the sweetest-voiced tenor of all time. After hearing Simon O’Neill sing “An die ferne Geliebte,” I must note that O’Neill’s voice would hardly be called sweet. O’Neill, unlike Wunderlich, is a heldentenor, and O’Neill’s voice, though powerful, tends to be a bit shrill at the top. Moreover, his tone is a bit brassy except when he sings a soft passage. Thus, Beethoven’s love-song to a distant beloved came off as anything but sweet.  

Next on the program was Simon O’Neill singing “Gott! welch dunkel hier,’ Florestan’s soliloquoy in his subterranean prison in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. For this great aria Simon O’Neill’s voice was fairly well suited, for here Florestan bemoans the solitude and silence of his unjust incarceration. “I dared speak the truth,” Florestan declares, “and chains are my reward.” Simon O’Neill sang a version of this aria that appears in Beethoven’s manuscripts for the opera he was going to call Leonore. The first two stanzas are the same as in the finished opera Fidelio, but the third stanza is quite different. Hearing this third stanza for the first time, I would say that Beethoven was right in switching to a new third stanza for the opera he released with the title Fidelio.  

Following this aria, O’Neill introduced young tenor Pene Pati, who sang two pieces in Italian: “Angelo casto e bel” from Donizetti’s Le duc d’Albe, and “Cujus animam” from Rossini’s Stabat Mater. Pene Pati, who sang a robust Duke of Mantua in last summer’s Rigoletto at San Francisco Opera, has a stirring tenor voice with great power. If I have one reservation about Pene Pati’s singing it is that he hasn’t yet learned how and when to harness his power. However, as he demonstrated in this recital, he is making progress in this direction. His Italian diction, as well as his Latin diction, were excellent.  

Simon O’Neill returned to sing “Brünnhilde! heilige Braut,” from Wagner’s Die Götterdämmerung. This was sung by O’Neill in heroic fashion, with just a hint of shrillness occurring here and there. Then O’Neill left the stage while pianist Dennis Terence played Siegfrieds Trauermarsch” from Die Götterdämmerung, as transcribed by Busoni. As the final piece before intermission, Simon O’Neill sang “Nur eine Waffe taugt” from Wagner’s Parsifal. This too was given heroic treatment. 

After intermission, Simon O’Neill sang a set of songs by Richard Strauss. “Ruhe, meine Seele” suffered from a shrill high note on the word ‘Sonnenschein,” and a similar shrillness occurred twice in the song “Ich trage meine Minne.” O’Neill’s best singing in the Strauss set was in the beautiful “Morgen!” Here O’Neill allowed himself to tone down his powerful but occasionally strident tenor, and he sang this lovely piece in mezza voce, with a finish in soft falsetto.  

Following the Strauss set, O’Neill introduced Amitai Pati, who sang “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, and the Italian aria, “E la solita storia del pastore,” from Cilea’s L’arlesiana. Here a comparison with Fritz Wunderlich would be most apt, for Wunderlich’s rendition of “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” is a classic, perhaps the greatest of all time. Amitai Pati held his own in delivering a sweet-voiced rendition of this aria. His diction in German was excellent. Next Amitai Pati sang a rarely heard aria from Cilea’s rarely heard opera, L’arlesiana. This piece too was beautifully sung. Amitai Pati sings with a sense of balance and sweetness that are quite different from his brother Pene Pati’s tendency to overwhelm everything with sheer power. In fact, Amitai Pati may well have provided the most balanced and consistently beautiful singing of this entire recital! 

To close out the program, Simon O’Neill sang Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and “Ein Schwert verheiss mir der Vater” from Wagner’s Die Walküre. Set to poems written by Wagner’s inamorata Matilde Wesendonck, the set of songs known as the Wesendonck Lieder were written for a female singer, but over the years several male singers have ventured to sing them, perhaps most notably Lauritz Melchior. Suffice it to say, however, that Simon O’Neill’s voice is not right for these tender, melancholic songs. In his renditions, only the song “Im Treibhaus” came across with the requisite sorrowful melancholy. However, pianist Terence Dennis performed the Eric Satie-like introduction and finale to “Im Treibhaus” with great feeling. The final aria in this program, Siegmund’s invocation of his father’s promise of a sword, was heroically rendered by Simon O’Neill, who may have saved his best singing for last. Along with the Pati brothers and pianist Terrence Dennis, Simon O’Neill accepted the enthusiastic applause of the Berkeley audience.