Benjamin Bernheim filled the auditorium with a sound that was powerful, beautiful and intelligent.
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It’s always a curious thing to hear opera singers live after first hearing them on recordings. Does their art, so scrupulously captured — and in some cases, massaged — on an album translate to an auditorium?
In the case of the French tenor Benjamin Bernheim, who made his Metropolitan Opera debut on Thursday night as the Duke in Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” the recordings don’t do him justice.
On disc, Bernheim, who has two polished albums on the Deutsche Grammophon label, sounds most at home in mellifluous French music, where his voice gently inflates to fill long melodies, floats in quiet moments and rises to romantic climaxes.
Verdi’s Duke is not like that. He’s a licentious cad — flip and arrogant, a little romantic but mostly skeevy, and shallow as a Champagne coupe. Most tenors play up the idea of his irresistible sex appeal with punchy rhythms, a brassy tone and beaming smiles.
At the Met, Bernheim played against type with his slippery vocalism and louche, jaded demeanor. His middle voice, elegant and ringing as on the recordings, rises into an upper register of an entirely different quality, and that’s when it gets exciting. He’s a lyric tenor who roars on top with genuinely thrilling, auditorium-filling sound. You can’t duplicate that sensation at home.
Bernheim deployed his strangely mesmerizing, bifurcated technique to embody a womanizer who is ultimately obsessed with his own desires. “Parmi veder le lagrime” oozed with self-regarding longing, and “La donna è mobile” had the suavity of someone who doesn’t need to showboat. Bernheim’s Duke overwhelmed the defenses of the soprano Rosa Feola’s Gilda with sheer power in Act I, and dialed up the sensuality with a coddled sound in the Act III quartet.
The baritone Quinn Kelsey, who sang the title role in the premiere of Barlett Sher’s production last season, once again turns vocal color into a theatrical art. His singing, highly responsive to emotional inflection but perhaps lacking the noble gloss and dramatic power of a typical Verdi baritone, brought a gruff texture to Rigoletto’s paternal vulnerability, clarity to his yearning and an oily sheen to his moments of craven vengefulness.
Kelsey’s characterization suits the human scale of Sher’s staging. As Rigoletto’s world closes in, Michael Yeargan’s sets scale down from the Duke’s vast court of blood-red marble to Rigoletto’s modest home to the claustrophobic confines of Act III.
As Gilda, Feola handled “Caro nome” circumspectly, and her slim voice gained in warmth and security as the evening progressed. The bass John Relyea, a Met regular, dug into the role of the assassin Sparafucile with his gargoyle of a voice — a dark, threatening gnarl of sound. Aigul Akhmetshina (Maddalena) and Brittany Renee (Countess Ceprano) sang with full, clear voices.
In another debut, the conductor Speranza Scappucci shaped the music with dynamic contrasts and supported her singers with attention to transitions in tempo. She didn’t necessarily mine the score for color or character — Gilda’s apotheosis was stubbornly earthbound — but Scappucci surfaced bleak hollowness in the woodwinds and strings that touched on the futility of Rigoletto’s struggles. The speed she brought to Rigoletto’s “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” a solo that swirls with such intensity it threatens to consume everyone around him, robbed it of its wrath.
The gravitational pull of Rigoletto’s moral calamity was no match for Bernheim’s Duke, who, operating on another plane afforded him by wealth and position, ignored any force that tried to contain him. And with singing of such distinctive power, beauty and intelligence, you could say the same for Bernheim himself.
Through Dec. 29 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org.