Arias and Songs from Ludwig van Beethoven (Fidelio), Arrigo Boito (Mefistofele), Gaetano Donizetti (L’Elisir d’amore), George Gershwin (Porgy and Bess), Charles Gounod (Faust), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Don Giovanni), Amilcare Ponchielli (La Gioconda), Giacomo Puccini (Tosca), Gioacchino Rossini (Il Barbiere di Siviglia), Claude-Michel Schönberg (Les Misérables), Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd), Arthur Sullivan (Ruddigore), Giuseppe Verdi (Otello), Carl Maria von Weber (Der Freischütz) & Kurt Weill (Die Dreigroschenoper)
Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), Swedish Radio Choir, Arne Lundmark (Chorus Master), Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Paul Daniel (Conductor)
Recorded in Stockholm (March 2009) – 58’22
Deutsche Grammophon 477 8091 – Booklet in English, French and German with English translations of the French, Italian and German lyric texts
There really is no one like Bryn Terfel – with his larger than life personality, extraordinary charisma, and dazzling array of vocal gifts. He has a kaleidoscopic color palette and a range from deepest darkness to a head voice that is particularly ravishing when he sings softly. And he has tremendous vocal power wielded with minute control of dynamics, taking him from a full throated forte straight down to the merest whisper. He also has a lieder singer’s sensitivity to text – for phrasing, diction (here in four languages) and the creation of mood by the coloring of words. It’s no surprise that he’s a master recitalist.
In this his first opera CD in eight years, Terfel brings to life a parade of incorrigibles from the worlds of opera and musical theater – from the outright diabolical, to the deranged, the depraved, the defiant, and the delightfully deceitful. They are all here – fifteen of them. All marvelously drawn. All created in rapid succession as fully rounded beings without the benefit of the context an opera provides and the time (measured over hours in the theater) for a character to unfold. Terfel is clearly a bit of a conjurer. His portrayals are as redolent of atmosphere (Sporting Life from Porgy and Bess and Mackie Messer from Die Dreigroschenoper for example) as they are of psychological depth.
Throughout his twenty year career, Terfel has shown a remarkable versatility. What other major artist could be as eagerly awaited for such disparate roles as Papageno, Sweeney Todd, and Wotan (a role he will assume at the Metropolitan Opera next season in the first two installments of the new Ring cycle? He also has a substantial back catalogue on Deutsche Grammophon, ranging from opera and oratorio right through musical theater and Welsh and English songs. To everything he sings, Terfel brings his impeccable musicianship but also conviction and attention – just as much for Gershwin and Weill, Sondheim and Gilbert and Sullivan, as for Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. His portraits of characters from the musical theater repertoire are as finely etched as those of his classical offerings. He loves it all, respects it all – and it shows.
Two of the most nihilistic characters on the disc are roles he has never sung on stage. The first track is a tour de force performance of “Sono lo Spirito che nega” from Boito’s Mephistofele. Here is no suave, urbane character, but rather a primal, fire-breathing force. Terfel is down at the lower end of his range here, injecting an almost brassy quality to his voice. He adopts a mocking tone that can only be described as devilish. And what a whistle! In the “Credo” from Otello, Terfel conveys this poison-riddled character with extraordinary dynamic finesse. His bleached-out coloring of “credo” emerges as a negation of belief, a negation made explicit in his heart-stopping “Nulla.” (After death, we can look forward to nothing.)
Terfel has said how much he enjoyed working with Stephen Sondheim on the production of Sweeney Todd, staged at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. Here, he gives us one track, the “Epiphany.” Singing with the marvelous Anne-Sofie von Otter as Mrs. Lovett, Terfel, with his rapid fire declamation, becomes the terrifyingly tormented serial killer, with heartbreak, hatred and horror, all in just three minutes. The effect on stage must have been shattering.
With a lighter vocal color and comic flourishes, Donizetti’s Dulcamara, emerges as an irresistible and irrepressible purveyor of false elixirs. Just listening to this track evokes the memory of an Amsterdam production featuring Terfel’s joyously over-the-top performance as Elvis, effervescent and iridescent in a ruffled shirt and bell bottom trousers.
His gorgeously vocalized “Te Deum”, with its seamless legato conveys the full pathology of Scarpia (a role he sings at the Metropolitan Opera this season), a murderous tyrant who is equally aroused by sex and violence.
On stage, Terfel has been a mesmerizing Don Giovanni, most recently in a semi-staged production in Verbier last summer. On the last track of this CD he sings all three roles in the final trio. His Commendatore is stentorian and almost sepulchral (the latter with some assistance from the sound engineer). His Don Giovanni is defeated yet defiant. And his Leporello is frightened, fidgety, and fast talking. He has said that he intends to leave Mozart to the younger singers, a decision I hope he might reconsider.
On this recital disc, Terfel has superb collaborators in the Swedish Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra conducted masterfully by Paul Daniel. All are equally at home and in command of the many incarnations and permutations of evil on offer here.
Whether it’s our – and Terfel’s – first experience with his assumption of a character (in the Boito, Weber, Ponchielli, and Weill excerpts, for example) or his appearance in a role he has made his own (such as Don Giovanni, Dulcamara, or Gounod’s Méphistophélès), listening to this disc inevitably elicits a smile of pleasure. He’s just so delightfully bad.
Arlene Judith Klotzko