It was close to 9 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018. Heldentenor Clay Hilley had already conquered the rage of the ocean, immersed himself in the diary of one who vanished, become one with the earth. He had even forged Siegfried’s legendary sword Nothung.
And yet his most challenging role of the evening was right in front him. After some raucous applause from the crowd assembled at the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in New York to hear this recital, courtesy of the Wagner Society of New York, Hilley told the audience he had another Wagner encore on tap, but that before that he wanted to acknowledge a lovely lady in the front row – soprano and Shoperatic co-founder Sara Duchovnay. It was her birthday and he had a special gift for her.
He kicked off “Be My Love,” wearing a vibrant red and black jacket, his voice rising and falling in a suave and elegant vocal portrayal that would make Mario Lanza proud. And as the song reached its climax, Hilley turned to Duchovnay and started walking to her. He put his hand into his jacket pocket, pulled out a small package, got down to one knee in front of her and hit a high C, asking her to “be my wife.”
Duchovnay would later call it her best birthday ever and Hilley would go on to heroically interpret Siegmund’s heroic call declaration of love from “Die Walküre,” an extended passage in which he promises to take her far away, protect her, and elope with her, a fitting follow-up to his marriage proposal. Hilley told the audience this was his favorite aria, and it showed, the tenor putting together some of his most tender singing of the evening. His is a thick and weighty voice that at only 36 is rich and flexible. He put that entire package together in this final number, his final call for the “promulgation of the Walsung blood” an overpowering high note that was greeted with equally enthusiastic excitement from the viewers at hand.
There Was Also a Recital… A Pretty Good One
The rest of the recital was equally memorable if for different reasons. Hilley, who is currently covering the title role in “Parsifal” at the Met, kicked things off in rather unorthodox manner – with Mozart. Specifically, he chose “Fuor del Mar” from “Idomeneo,” a piece with infamous coloratura passages that some tenors, such as Plácido Domingo, omit altogether. But not Hilley, who despite giving a Wagnerian touch to Mozart, swept through the coloratura without much difficulty. The remainder of the aria was sung with a combination of Mozartian elegance and heft that actually highlighted the anger and turmoil that Idomeneo sings about.
From there he moved on to Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” taking on the three tenor movements, which he had sung once before on last minute’s notice. This time around he had time to prepare with pianist Abdiel Vásquez, and the two made a formidable team. Hilley rose to the occasion in the opening aria “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde,” showing off the power of his voice for the first time at the climax of the movement. “Von der Jugend” gave us a more gentle feel from the tenor, moreso than anything he did in the Mozart. And he closed things off with a melancholic and yet playful “Der Tunkene im Frühling.” Hilley will and should get more opportunities to take on this masterwork and audiences will get a chance to discover his rich palette of vocal expression across these three movements.
After the Intermission
Intermission was followed by introspection in “Diary of One Who Vanished,” Hilley and Abdiel seamlessly taking listeners through eight songs, each one building off the latter. A gentle interlude into Dvorak’s “Dmitrij” eventually led to the pomp and circumstance of Siegfried’s Forging Song, where Hilley showed off his vocal precision. Hilley made everyone wait the entire night to hear his Wagner selection, and when it came it was a true showstopper. Every note sounded precise, the heft and power behind it were enthralling and energy and excitement that he brought to it vocally simply rocked the roof and drew raucous applause.
That he still had another play at hand to top that is simply incredible.
Not to be overlooked was Abdiel who got two solo pieces in the program, Schumann’s “Widmung from “Mythren,” Op. 25, as transcribed by Liszt, and a transcription of the Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde.” Both were fantastic virtuoso displays, but the latter was simply divine, Abdiel’s exquisite ability to stretch the tempi and thus create greater tension and sense of anticipation as we reach one of opera’s most glorious climaxes was a true revelation. If he had played this selection alongside a lesser artist, he probably steals all the spotlight with this one transcendent moment.
But Hilley is a heldentenor to keep an eye and ear out for. He has all the tools to be a great Wagner tenor of the future AND present, as evidenced by this fantastic evening that no doubt was life-changing for him.