A genial character himself Bryn Terfel has conscripted a gang of ‘Bad Boy’ characters from opera and musicals for his new Deutsche Grammophon release. Evil and scary personalities range from Pizzaro out of Beethoven’s Fidelio
to Méphistophélès from Gounod’s Faust
and from Barnaba in Ponchielli’s La gioconda
to singing the terrible triumvirate of Don Giovanni, Il Commendatore and Leporello all characters from Mozart’s Don Giovanni
Terfel’s distinctive and commanding voice divides opinion. There is a school of thought that feels that the Welshman’s voice excessively dominates the proceedings and somehow gets in the way of the song. In other words when he is singing a setting of say, Vaughan Williams you hear ‘Terfel singing Vaughan Williams’ rather than ‘Vaughan Williams sung by Terfel’. I used to subscribe to this standpoint but time and experience has rather mellowed my opinion. In Munich, earlier this year I attended Peter Konwitschny’s outstanding production by the Bavarian State Opera of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman
with Terfel singing the role of the Dutchman. Terfel was quite superb in both voice and stage presence. The length of his standing ovation demonstrated a great popularity with Munich public. Now I accept Terfel’s magnificent, rich and colourful voice for what it is. I concentrate on the myriad benefits of his unique talent the quality of which only comes along once in several generations.
Terfel has been prolific in the recording studio. A number of his thirty or so Deutsche Grammophon releases are treasured parts of my collection. I have especially enjoyed: Something Wonderful
hits from Rodgers and Hammerstein
; Opera Arias
with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under James Levine; both The Vagabond
and Silent Noon
English song collections with Malcolm Martineau; Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah
with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Paul Daniel and Simple Gifts
a collection of sacred, spiritual and meditative songs with the London Symphony Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth. Looking back on my list of favourite Terfel recordings I was struck by the versatility of his repertoire. Few singers could successfully accomplish such a variety of musical styles and even fewer have that enduring popularity for the record label to sanction such projects.
On the present disc there isn’t a single dud track. Terfel is certainly the master of adapting to the changing vocal demands of each role. I especially enjoyed his convincing and chilling portrayal of the Devil in the aria Sono lo Spirito che nega
From Weber’s Der Freischütz
the aria Schweig, schweig, damit dich niemand warnt
the supernatural evil of Kaspar just oozes from Terfel’s tones.
As a contrast in musical styles I was impressed with the roguish character Sportin’ Life singing It ain't necessarily so
from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess
The unscrupulous actions of Mack the Knife are most convincing in Die Moritat von Mackie Messer
from the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht music drama Die Dreigroschenoper
(The Threepenny Opera
). As Iago I was struck by how the bass-baritone engenders such an exceptional sense of evil in the aria Vanne… Credo in un Dio crudel
from Verdi’s Otello
The highlight for me is the catchy yet alarming song Epiphany
from Sondheim’s musical thriller Sweeney Todd
. I got to know the work through the 2007 Golden Globe winning feature film adaptation directed by Tim Burton. The star role of Todd was played superbly by the Oscar nominated Johnny Depp who surprised many by singing the role of the gore-lusting serial killer with such persuasive characterisation. Unfazed by the demands of the demon barber, Terfel convinces as the deranged throat-slitting killer. World famous mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter might seem a surprising choice for the cameo role of Todd’s accomplice Mrs Nellie Lovett. Like the fictitious Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett, von Otter at one time lived in London and displays a more than decent cockney accent.
From the Stockholm Berwaldhallen the sound quality secured by the Deutsche Grammophon engineers has been produced to a high standard. One minor irritation is the tracks being listed on the back of the jewel case but not numbered. All the necessary information is contained inside the booklet together with a fine essay.
Terfel convincingly pulls off this challenging recital of opera and musical ‘Bad Boy’ characters. Marvellously sung and characterised with great affection, it’s not surprising that the bass-baritone has achieved such elevated heights of popularity. I found this disc wonderful entertainment from start to finish.