The Opernhaus Zürich, in a much-appreciated gesture, offers a mini festival called “Finale”: a series of concerts to close the 2019/20 season, abruptly interrupted at the beginning of March for health and safety reasons. The house can only be about half full, and only small ensembles are allowed to perform, but it is a great feeling, for us music lovers, to be able to listen to live music again.

Audience at the Opernhaus Zürich
© Andrea Zahler

The second concert of this mini festival was a Liederabend with Sabine Devieilhe and Benjamin Bernheim, two prominent French opera singers accompanied at the piano by conductor Carrie-Ann Matheson. The two singers had very different attitudes: Devieilhe classy and reserved, concentrated and über-professional, Bernheim visibly overjoyed, bursting with excitement at the prospect of performing again: it was, I believe, his first public appearance after the pandemic. His mimics and laughs might have been a bit too much for the stern Swiss audience, but he gave an impressive performance, based on a solid technique, a wonderful timbre and great legato. Matheson supported the singers at the piano with commitment and inspiration: her playing was one of the highlights of the evening.

The evening started with Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées, based on poems by Paul Verlaine. Devieilhe explored all the nuances of the composition, with subtlety and insight. Her silvery soprano, of great beauty, gave its best in dreamlike, atmospheric pieces, such as C’est l’extase langoureuse or L’ombre des arbres, with sensual overtones. Her breath control and precision were remarkable, the musical phrases flowing through her unchallenged by any human effort.

Sabine Devieilhe
© Molina Visuals

Benjamin Bernheim followed with four songs by Henri Duparc, a late Romantic whose mental illness led him to stop composing at only 37, and, later in life, to the destruction of almost all his compositions. Bernheim displayed a vast range of emotions in his interpretation, his lyrical tenor softening in ravishing mezze-voci, with a beautiful sound that I want to call falsettone in “Extase” (after Henri Cazalis), or exploding with power and confidence in the dramatic “L’invitation au voyage”.

The first part of the concert ended with a series of crowd pleasers: Devieilhe delivered an exciting bells song from Léo Delibes' Lakmé, her high notes perfectly placed and suitably sparkling. Bernheim followed with a passionate, emotional rendition of the aria “En fermant les yeaux”, from Massenet’s Manon, and then the lovely duet from the first act of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, “Ange adorable”, followed. At the end, instead of kissing, the singers jokingly bumped their elbows, to respect distancing.

The second part of the programme was almost entirely dedicated to Richard Strauss: Devieilhe sang the series Mädchenblumen, Op.22, while Bernheim performed Befreit, Heimliche Aufforderung, Morgen and Cäecilie. The singers seemed less at ease in the German language than in their native French, but they both delivered an intense, committed performance. 

The finale of the concert was reserved for the first act duet from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, in French. The style of Bernheim and Devieilhe was not exactly canonical bel canto, and maybe the language also contributed to the feeling of estrangement, but the performance was nevertheless enjoyable.

As an encore, Devieilhe chose Youkhali, by Kurt Weill, a melancholic tango-habanera composed for the musical play Marie-Galante. Her interpretation and style were sophisticated and perfectly suited to this jazz classic. Bernheim’s encore was a surprise: the world premiere of a Verdi aria! The fragment was recently found by musicologist Anselm Gerhard, in Bern, hidden among some drafts for Don Carlo. Only the melody and the bass line were outlined in Verdi’s manuscript, and Gerhard supplied the rest of the piano accompaniment, taking inspiration from similar passages in Don Carlo. The result is a brief two stanza aria, after a poem by Heinrich Heine, with a charming melody, which Bernheim delivered with a great legato and a splendid high B flat. His ease on the high notes is truly remarkable. The song is certainly not among the masterpieces of the master, but it was very interesting and exciting to witness a world premiere of a Verdi piece. The last encore was “Tonight” from West Side Story, an easy, pleasant conclusion of a very successful evening.

You can watch Benjamin Bernheim singing Verdi's Quand’io mi trovo alla mia Bella accanto here: