From high up in the mountains; from a knoll, within a cave; from a curlicue within the cave, behind a rock; within two back to back rocks, down under the ground about two feet; behind a shelf of rock, jutting out from inside a dome of the oldest rocks in that cave and ancient concavities; comes this voice, round, round and bound in gold, rich, resonant, and, big, bigger, full, and did we say round? It is Simon O’Neill, New Zealand-born, now internationally known Tenor. That’s his voice, spawned, no doubt long ago, long-long ago, and gold-filled, by giants, then twisted and turned by hands that create what endures in cosmically distant and intricately wrought spheres.
And that’s what we heard on Sunday afternoon, in Herbst Hall, at the University of California, Berkeley. For nearly two hours: singing, from that height, that distance, that long, long ago.
He sang Beethoven; he sang Strauss, including Morgen, Caecile; he sang Wagner. Alongside his pianist/accompanist Terrence Dennis, he said he was singing this repertoire for the first time live.
Standing with Beethoven
Simon O’Neill sang Florestan’s aria, “ Gott! Welche dunkel hier,” from Beethoven’s 1805 version of “Leonora,” following the six-song cycle, “An Ferne Geliebte.” Through-composed, none of the songs stand alone; Beethoven linked each, a romantic sequence of rapture and longing, perhaps to his Immortal Beloved. O’Neill commented that these songs were a favorite of his favorite tenor, Fritz Wunderlich, and in singing them, he was acknowledging this. Variety lived in the words and meaning largely, O’Neill establishing his stance for the concert. Public and performative, despite the conversation, these songs did not match the intimate finesse and variety that came in the second song cycle he offered, Wagner’s “Wesendock Lieder.”
On to Wagner
Here we have the exquisite array of feelings of longing, set into a landscape as large as time and the cosmos. The “Wesendonk Lieder,” the five songs written by Mathilde Wesendonck, the married friend of Wagner’s and his lover, created an alliance of love-longing hard to forget. It features a palette of genuine feeling, a tunnel of human yearning, the sequence has everything such a cycle needs: anguish, mystery, yearning, “delicatésse,” sanguinity. O’Neill wrapped his gigantic sound around these with care and attention. More sound than the intimate whispers perhaps, but nevertheless inviting in ardor and poignancy. The low tones, back closer to the earth, had more than appeal than his piannisimo. They grabbed and held us fast.
“Der Engel” establishes the downbeat for the subsequent five songs. Even without familiar pianissimi, the tenor managed to convey the softness and thrill of the angelic universe he has entered. The exquisite “Im Treibhaus” builds on this rolling quality and pianissimo comes to blend. He lingers, he caresses, he reaches into a lovely low register and we are one with his longing. “Schmerzen” loses some of that privacy and but “Träume” gives it back in the carefully sculpted lines shifting feelings of reaching toward and then melting away, into death.
The Wagner opera selections included “Siegfried’s Tod,” Parsifal’s “Nur eine Waffe taugt,” and “Ein Schweirt verhiess mir der Vater” from “Die Walküre,” and showed O’Neill’s range, power, fine articulation, and sonorous ringing tones. The Wagner – big and beautiful, but because of its bounty, remained somewhat remote, if not private. However rich the piano accompaniment was, following, leading, decorating what was formidable, it only partly supported the world of Wagner. Of course; it can’t be otherwise; it can’t more than allude to all we would hear and discover with that orchestral texture behind it
The richness of “Die Walküre, “however, the tremulousness, rare in Heldentenor range, he entered with great tenderness, which was a real pleasure. And the soft walk of the “Was gleisst was hell in Glimmerschein” – plus the marvel of his breath control countered as much of the bright roar and the absence of all that instrumental texture.
O’Neill’s articulation of the language is exact and exacting; it feels acquired and sometimes precious, although the world of the text is so well-measured. We could hear the vowels and the clipped endings and savor them, even the run-on lines. Only occasionally did O’Neill climb up, up to the top and that increased the variety across the board. As it was, the banquet of sound had to be bound somehow. It has to be a great challenge to have that much music in your throat and chest and restrain the urge to let it all out, whether at once, or ever.
Sharing the Stage
O’Neill, shared the stage with fellow New Zealanders, Pene Pati and Armitai Pati, current Adler Fellows at San Francisco Opera for some contrast. Pene Pati sang Donizetti’s “Angelo cast e bel” with genuine warmth and beauty as aswll as the “Cuius Animam” from Rossini’s Stabat Mater. Energy and warmth resounded from him with some of the ease and clarion-style of Luciano Pavarotti. Pene’s version remained less round and full, but nevertheless ardent and abundant. And his High C? Well, he did it easily and gracefully.
Amitai Pati, Tenor, sang Mozart’s “Dies Bildnis…” with amiability and immediacy even without some contrast of pace, and then the Cilea’s, “E la solita storia del pastore” with poignancy, plaintive magnetism, and lyrical ease. He caressed the words. Both these young tenors used their beautiful voices to connect with O’Neill’s offering and with our open ears.
It was a true pleasure to see O’Neill make a rare appearance in California. His Siegfried, inviting us to worlds beyond worlds, walked normally onto the stage totally at home. His convivial commentary also showed him like a man of earth.
Up there in the clouds, a climate of rarity, sculptured solemnity and attuned to distant truths? Tones? Perhaps/ Still, the recital was more than a lesson in vastness and range; it was a journey into the empyrean.