Friday, 24 July 2009
Manfred Honeck conducted the Verbier Festival Orchestra for this concert performance on July 20th 2009.
Tuesday, 18 November 2008
David McVicar´s 2004 staging of Faust for the Royal Opera, London was televised at the time, and now released on DVD. As ad admirer, virtually without exception, of McVicars eerily aesthetic productions,of which Salome, Nozze, Tales of Hoffmann, Magic Flute, Rigoletto and Poppea are only a few examples, I was surprisinly rather disappointed with his Faust staging.
The premises as such, were enticing: David McVicar sets his Faust around the time of the Franco-Prussian war (1870) in Gounod´s Paris. Faust is simply the aged Gounod, torn between religion and theater (McVicar is "profoundly anticlerical" according to himself) and (according to McVicar) questioning his sexuality. Both elements of Gounod´s character are clearly projected in this staging.
Méphistophéles appears a many-faced trickster with a magic coffin and numerous costume changes, including appearing in drag-costume in a Walpurgis night, which begins as a parody on the ballet Giselle and ends like an orgy of sex and violence. Most of the time, however, Méphistophéles looks like a Pirate of the Caribbean.
Marguerite, the aspiring socialite (Angela Gheorghiu with blonde wig), appears in the overstuffed Cabaret l´Enfer only to contrast with an extremely dull and bare setting for the second-act scene surrounding her house. In the end (if I understand McVicar rightly), Faust simply returns to his old self, now wiser after this apparent daydream/nightmare with a phantasy Méphistophéles.
No matter how eloquent McVicar´s ideas look on paper or how convincingly he explains his concept (which he does, by the way), the result comes out as appallingly overstuffed grand opera, in the worst sense of the word without a clear sense of direction, much unlike David McVicar´s usual sense of eery elegance.
That said, it was musically a rather superb performance. While Roberto Alagna may have trouble with the topnotes, he delivered a convincing performance with intensely committed acting (though he was in better vocal shape in Orange).
Angela Gheorghiu certainly has a beautiful voice, which I find optimal in a part such as Marguerite. It will then be a matter of taste whether taking offence that her acting and manners just appear plastified and artificial from A-Z. We see Angela Gheorghiu, the diva. Not Marguerite, the character, no matter how fervently she explaine the development of the character in a back-stage interview.
Ultimately, however, any performance of Faust centers around Mèphistophéles. In my book, Bryn Terfel was a disappointment with neither the vocal or physical menace or seductiveness essential for the role. In all fairness I should mention that most audiences and critics disagreed hailing Terfel´s performance as superb. As a Pirate from the Caribbean, he was, however hilarious, and his stage charisma is unquestionable. On DVD, I vastly prefer Ruggero Raimondi. Or I´d wait for René Pape.
The supporting roles were equally stellar: Simon Keenlyside a solid Valentin, while Sophie Koch to my surprise sounded overstretched as Siebel.
Antonio Pappano generated quite an amount of excitement in the pit, however ideally I´d wish for a denser sound, more along the lines of James Levines interpretation at the Met around the same time.
Faust is appallingly represented on DVD. Ken Russell´s Vienna production (with Ruggero Raimodi as Méphistopheles) seems the best alternative, though by no means overly exciting.
The church scene (Angela Gheorghiu and Bryn Terfel):
Roberto Alagna: 4
Angela Gheorghiu: 4-5
Bryn Terfel: 4
Simon Keenlyside: 4
Sophie Koch: 4
David McVicar: 3-4
Antonio Pappano: 4
Overall impression: 4
Those impressed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff´sk statements such as "existence itself has become the human death-trap" may well be impressed by this Tosca. Needless to say, I am among the least impressed. In my opinion Lehnhoff´s staging is kitsch. Stylish kitsch in a decadent environment, glitzy clothings and a myriad of death-traps. But nevertheless kitsch. A thriller, most evident in making Scarpia´s dungeon a death trap from which Tosca nearly does not escape. In that context I´ve often wondered why I´ve never seen a staging of Tosca where Scarpia does not die, but simply returns to kill Tosca in the end. Surely, if Tosca was a modern thriller this would be the way things would play out.
Not here though. Lehnhoff follows the drama quite closely. The church-dungeon-prison sequel is unchanged in this intended symbolic setting aimed at evoking a feeling of claustrophobia and omnipresent threat. But ultimately not succeeding.
Who cares that Richard Margison is not the Cavaradossi of most Tosca´s dreams. It´s worse that Catherine Malfitano is not the Tosca of most Scarpia´s dreams as she is vocally ordinary with far too much vibrato and far too little radiance on stage.
That leaves Bryn Terfel. I´ve read reports claiming he outclasses all competition back to and including Tito Gobbi in this part, being the master of subtle evilness. Agreed, Bryn Terfel may appear slightly unpleasant, but in the way of a second-rate criminal, not as the incarnation of evil. Or rather, if he is the incarnation of evil, he plays with such subtleness, that I fail to perceive it. Apart from his appearance, the problem is that Bryn Terfel essentially has a lyrical voice. He does command the stage. But there is nothing menacing or diabolical about Terfel´s Scarpia.
Are there plenty of vastly superior Scarpia´s around today? No. Are there any at all? I am not sure. Perhaps not. Are there any on DVD? Yes. Most recently Ruggero Raimondi. And Tito Gobbi on CD is entirely unbeatable. Not to mention Samuel Ramey.
Should you take my word on this? Of course not. As regular readers may know I have reservations about Bryn Terfel in this repertoire and I´d strongly advice anyone with an interest in Scarpia and/or Bryn Terfel to check it out for themselves as quite a few will disagree with me.
One truly superb aspect of performance is the Concertgebouw orchestra playing under Riccardo Chailly. Delicate and powerful from start to end.
Bryn Terfel as Scarpia - Tre sbirri e una carrozza:
The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):
Catherine Malfitano: 2
Bryn Terfel: 4
Richard Margison: 2
Nikolaus Lehnhoff´s staging: 3
Riccardo Chailly: 4-5
Overall impression: 2
Monday, 17 November 2008
Les Contes d´Hoffmann. Paris Bastille 2002. Director: Robert Carsen. Cast: Neil Shicoff (Hoffmann), Bryn Terfel (Villains), Susanne Mentzer (Muse), Desirée Rancatore (Olympia), Ruth Ann Swenson (Antonia), Béatrice Uria-Monzon (Giulietta). Conductor: Jesus Lopez-Cobos. Further information here.
Once again, Robert Carsen has turned out a gleamingly beautiful and stylish production for the Bastille Opera. This time he places Contes d´Hoffmann in a theater during and after a performance of Don Giovanni, where Stella sings Donna Anna. In the prologue we are in the bar, Antonia sits in the artificial orchestra pit while her mother sings from the state., Giulietta is in the audience... Theatre within the theatre at it´s best.
Neil Schicoff is a superb Hoffmann, one of his best parts. The characterization is much more multifacetted than usual, he is not the naive lover, but rather the estranged tired-looking artist, very well suited to his appearance as well as vocal strenghts. Susanne Mentzner is both fine and sensitive as The Muse.
Desirée Rancatore looks and acts like the Doll Olympia, but does not have the voice for the part. Ruth Ann Swenson does have the voice for her Antonia, but doesn´t really look and act the part. Béatrice Uria-Monzon theoretically has both the looks and voice for Giulietta, the hatch being I find her voice rather rough.
Despite my finding Bryn Terfel´s Villains rather odd as opposed to menacing or dangerous (where is the undercurrent menace of Scintille Diamant?), the Villains are his best parts within in this range of repertoire, of which my reservations on Terfel is too well known to regular readers to be repeated. However, in all fairness: Admirers of Bryn Terfel in parts such as Scarpia and Méphistopheles will admire his Villains unconditionally.
In my humble opinion, there is only one problem with Les Contes D´Hoffmann: The opera is quite simply too long, no matter what version (of the myriad available) is on the table. The problem: The first and last acts are relatively tedious and Offenbach´s inspiration seems to have faltered in long stretches. On the contrary, the stories of the three women (Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta) are superb, most of all the Giulietta act, which also features the Scintille Diamant.
Is this the DVD of Hoffmann to own? Probably yes, at least as long as David McVicar´s 2003 Salzburg production has not been released on DVD.
Neil Schicoff "Kleinzach Aria":
The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):
Neil Shicoff: 5
Bryn Terfel: 4
Desirée Rancatore: 2
Ruth Ann Swenson: 3
Béatrice Uria-Monzon: 3
Susanne Mentzner: 4
Robert Carsen´s production: 5
Jesus Lopez-Cobos: 4-5
Overall impression: 4
Saturday, 8 November 2008
Die Frau Ohne Schatten. Salzburg Festival 1992. Director: Götz Friedrich. Cast: Cheryl Studer (Kaiserin), Thomas Moser (Kaiser), Robert Hale (Barak), Eva Marton (His Wife), Marjana Lipovsek (Amme), Bryn Terfel (Spirit Messenger). Conductor: Sir Georg Solti with the Vienna Philharmonics. Further information here.
One may argue it doesn´t make sense as Sir Georg Solti has recorded Die Frau Ohne Schatten on CD with virtually the same cast. However, it does make a difference. The intensity of Sir Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonics in this live Salzburg Festival performance of Die Frau Ohne Schatten is simply unbeatable. His way with this score is unreal. The contrapuncts of the initial kei-ko-bad chords - one of the greatest opera openings of all time - immediately signal the greatness to come. Perhaps this is Sir Georg Solti´s finest achievement. I would not rule it out. The contrpunctual elements are emphasized as are the brass section, the energy level is immense throughout and as always with Sir Georg Solti: Straight-on and never sentimental. One of the truly great interpretations of any opera. Or rather: Of any work.
That said, Götz Friedrichs´s staging may offend very few, though neither traiditional or particularly inventive. The sets are abstract, but the story is told relatively straight-forward, with emphasis on the the parallel fantasy and human planes of the storyline.
Robert Hale, rather peculiar looking, is for once a true dramatic barytone and not the dramatic bass-barytone often seen in this part. He inhibits Barak´s character in a strange way, perhaps helped by him being so thin his collar bones are very prominent, rather fitting for a poor dyer having to carry his stuff to the market every day. Thomas Moser´s Kaiser (replaced by Plácido Domingo on the CD recording) is more forgettable. Furthermore, Bryn Terfel, at the beginning of his career, is seen in the small part of the Spirit Mesenger.
The only current alternative to this DVD is the curious Kabuki staging conducted by the superb (though not equally superb, in my opinion) Wolfgang Sawallisch.
This is Sir Georg Solti´s show.
Empress "Ach wehe mir":
Cheryl Studer: 5
Thomas Moser: 3
Marjana Lipovsek: 5
Eva Marton: 3
Robert Hale: 4
Götz Friedrich´s production: 5
Sir Georg Solti: 6
Wednesday, 22 October 2008
Bryn Terfel´s fist-ever visit to Copenhagen (and second-ever to Denmark) was the first installment of a small Scandinavian Tour, bringing him to Stockholm, Oslo, Gothenburg and Trondheim within the next couple of months. “I have taken this year off from opera, which is why I have the opportunity to perform here tonight” he announced from the stage [!].
On this tour Bryn Terfel is joined by two Welsh artists, conductor Gareth Jones and harpist Catrin Finch. Terfel appeared the consummate professional with a top-tuned program showing off his greatest strengths as expected, as well as his greatest weaknesses (less expected).
First of all Bryn Terfel is a superb performer. He is a superb physical as well as vocal comedian. He has superb sense of characterization and a virtually immaculate diction. He has star quality in spades as well as plenty of the indefinable likeability factor. He simply appears genuinely sympathetic as well as down to earth in a charismatic way. All to a degree that you´d almost not believe anybody to be so insolent as to accuse this man of unprofessionalism…
Looking at the glossy premade Scandinavian Touring programmes in English (sold for 8 Euros) stating that “Bryn is pleased to have an association with several companies, most notably Rolex, Clogau Gold and Penderyn Distillery” made this feeling disappear, though.
There is no doubt that Bryn Terfel is firmly rooted in his native Wales, and luckily the traditional music of Wales has an allure sufficient to warrant an entire solo-album as well as half a section of a concert. Though apparently not quite half a section, as Welsh traditionals were spiced up with Granada (I suppose if Rolando Villazón can, why not Bryn Terfel?) and Irish as well as Scottish traditionals..
I´ll admit that singing along to Molly Malone is not my favourite pastime, though the audience in general, including a hard-core bunch of Welsh fans sitting right behind me, seemed to love it all, including the flirtatious remarks aimed to charm ladies in their 50´s without offending their husbands (the majority of the audience).
A calculated attempt to make easy money or a genuine wish to champion the music of his native country (as well as to promote young Welsh artists such as harpist Catrin Finch)? An unanswerable question as well as ultimately an unimportant one. Either you are entertained or you are not, Bryn Terfel´s personal considerations apart. And who can blame him for wanting to make money, while he can? And, by the way, he was entertaining. But also a bit too calculated.
Obviously nobody paid these top tickets prices to hear the young harpist Catrin Finch. However, the pieces she played seemed to substitute for the usual routine performances of routine operatic orchestral interludes, in which case she provided a rather welcome departure from the norm.
However, I am puzzled as to why Bryn Terfel chose to open and close the first section of the concert with three arias showing him at his weakest: Iago´s Credo from Otello (a role he has not performed on stage) and the Faust Méphistophéles Serenade and Veau D´Or. It was quite evident that he simply does not have the required support in his middle voice for these dramatic parts. Already at the D´Or in the first line Le Veau D´Or he was in trouble.
Bryn Terfel´s voice doesn´t have the steely projection of a dramatic bassbarytone. And technically he simply doesn´t seem to control the outerlying segments of his voice upon applying pressure.
His most unfortunate, in my opinion, artistical decision to play Méphistophéles as a comedian resulting in widespread laughter during both the Serenade and the Veau D´Or just seemed to underscore my point. I am sure the audience would have responded at least as enthusiastically had he chosen to sing Mozart or something more suitable to show off his considerable strengths.
Like Wolfram´s song to the Evening Star (Tannhäuser), where he was simply superb floating some of the most exquisite pianissimos I have yet heard. Or his famous characterization of Falstaff, probably his best part.
This is Bryn Terfel´s true fach: A lyrical bassbarytone and a comedian with character in spades. Also demonstrated in the second half of the program, superbly performed, though admittedly less to my taste. According to recent interviews, Bryn Terfel looks at his future and sees a line-up of heavy Wagnerian bass-barytone parts such as Wotan, Hans Sachs and Flying Dutchman. He just seems such a nice, down to earth person. How can you not wish him good luck? I still wish he would do more Leporello´s, Figaro´s (this part he has "officially" retired), Wolfram´s and Falstaff´s.
Programme (which will be repeated throughout the Scandinavian Tour):
”Credo” – Otello
"Ehi! Paggio! L´onore! Ladri!” – Falstaff
Debussy: ”Danse Sacreée et profane” with Catrin Finch
”Wie todesahnung---O du mein holden Abenstern” – Tannhäuser
Eugene Onegin polonaise
”Vous qui faites l´endormie” – Méphistophéles´ Serenade from Faust
”Le Veau D´Or” – Faust
Granada“Carneval de Venice” – Catrin Finch
Welsh Traditional – Bryn Terfel/Catrin Finch
Loch Lomond and Molly Malone – Bryn Terfel
”How to handle a woman” – Camelot
”You´ll never walk alone” – Carousel
Extra: A Welsh traditional (Bryn Terfel) plus a harp-solo (Catrin Finch)
Overall impression: 4
Friday, 12 September 2008
Falstaff. Royal Opera Covent Garden, London 1999. Director: Graham Vick. Cast: Bryn Terfel (Falstaff), Barbara Frittoli (Alice Ford), Roberto Frontali (Ford), Bernadette Manca di Nissa (Quickly), Desiree Rancatore (Nanetta), Kenneth Tarver (Fenton). Conductor: Bernard Haitink. Further information here.
Graham Vick has created a wonderfully imaginative Falstaff, chosen for the reopening of the renovated Covent Garden opera house in 1999.
The production is traditional as it follows the libretto rather closely. However, the production looks far from traditional. Set in sparkling primary colours, the world of Windsor is seen through distorsion glasses and with crooked perspectives. An example is the huge red trampoline bed tilted towards the audience on a floor with several trapdoors (Falstaff´s room).
The stage direction is flawless, capturing the sparkling and lively essence of Falstaff in what is clearly the best Falstaff production on the DVD market.
This is Bryn Terfel´s finest hour. As Falstaff he is virtually beyond both criticism and comparison, not only among the singers of today, but venturing quite a while back in history as well.
Wearing a very realistically looking latex body-suit with a huge belly, some may feel that the buffo element of Falstaff´s character is over the top, however Bryn Terfel´s characterization and acting is simply superb. Based on his performances in the heroic-bass-barytone parts of Jochanaan, Dutchman and Wotan (as well as Scarpia and Don G as the Don), I´ve never quite understood his appeal. However, watching his Falstaff, it becomes quite obvious what has made Bryn Terfel the star he is. In all regards, a tremendous achievement, which will undoubtedly stand the test of time unlike the heroic parts he unfortunately prefers to sing today.
Barbara Frittoli is simply perfect as a young and very playful Alice Ford - she is both good-looking as well as a terrific actress in superb voice. There are no weak links in the supporting cast.
Falstaff is very much the conductors opera. And without Bernhard Haitink sparkling in the pit the production would have been a failure.
Apparently this DVD has received an 'R' rating in the US due to Falstaff's giant erection, meaning that children can watch it but it is recommended that parents guide them. Consider yourselves warned...
Bryn Terfel: Ehi Paggio..l´Onore
Bryn Terfel: 5
Barbara Frittoli: 5
Graham Vick´s staging: 5
Bernard Haitink: 4-5
Overall impression: 5
Monday, 21 July 2008
Luc Bondy´s production of Salome has traveled around the world, and to be completely honest, I fail to fully understand why.
Luc Bondy intended to create a fin-de-siécle thriller cum family saga. To this end he applied a darkly expressionistic set mimicking the interior of a Victorian house only allowing for minimal lights to penetrate the french curtains. At one side a concrete ramp leads to Jochanaan´s basement as well as to the exterior. Thrown in are the odd few slaves. Salome´s tragedy is subsequently acted out around the dinner table in an interpretation of the work I simply do not find coherent.
Admittedly he is not helped by his Salome either. A signature role for Catherine Malfitano, I nevertheless find her Salome inadequate - vocally as well as dramatically. And vastly below the standard of her own previous DVD Salome from Berlin as well. Malfitano attacks the notes fearlessly and hits most of them as well, but the gleam, presence and character essential for a great Salome simply is not there. And a great actress she is not, in my opinion, though in fairness I should add that opinions on her Salome vary widely. Furthermore, a thrilling Salome depends on the chemistry between Salome and Jochanaan, which is simply not there.
Admittedly there is no better Jochanaan on DVD than Bryn Terfel. Nevertheless I do not think he is the truly great Jochanaan many have made him out to be. For the same reasons I do not think he is a great Wotan or a great Dutchman. Lack of majestic presence and commanding noble voice are some keywords. Not that Bryn Terfel´s voice is not both commanding, powerful and beautiful. It surely is. But his true strenght as a performer, in my opinion, lies in the edgier characterizations of less noble or haughty chatacters. As such he is a much better Leporello than Don Giovanni. And he would be among the truly greats as Alberich as well. His Johanaan has the presence of a nice fatherly priest as opposed to the commanding mysterious mytic. Nevertheless, his qualities place him vastly above virtually all his present, if not past, competitors in this, as in most of his other parts.
Kenneth Riegel and Anja Silja are both great as Herodes and Herodias. While Dohnanyi is by no means substandard, I miss sparkle and energy in a rather too anonymous performance.
Catherine Malfitano and Bryn Terfel in the confrontation between Salome and Jochanaan:
The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3= average):
Catherine Malfitano: 2
Bryn Terfel: 4
Kenneth Riegel: 4
Anja Silja: 4
Luc Bondy´s production: 3
Overall impression: 3
Saturday, 26 April 2008
Excerpts from: Don Giovanni, Rosenkavalier, Aida, Meistersinger, Frau Ohne Schatten, Fidelio
Artists include: Agnes Baltsa, Plácido Domingo, Thomas Hampson, Bryn Terfel, Violeta Urmana, Edita Gruberova, Angelika Kirchschlager. Conducting: Daniele Gatti, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Christian Thielemann, Franz Welser-Möst. More information here.
No matter how high the quality of the individual performances, these galas, in my opinion, tend to border on the tedious. Not the least due to the excessive applause between the contributions, at several points outlasting these in time. At least you get an impression of the atmosphere in the packed house, I suppose. During these applause session the camera repeatedly lingered on selected guests, of whom I only recognized Christa Ludwig, seated next to the entrance of the soloists and greeting many as they passed.
Is it worth watching? Definitely yes. Is it worth owning? I suppose that depends your affinity for this sort of thing and degree of liking for the individual performers.
Of particular note:
Bryn Terfel, despite a beautiful voice, is (still) not at his best in the Wagnerian repertoire (here as Hans Sachs).
Violeta Urmana - a really fine dramatic soprano. Couldn´t she be an option to resolve the much-talked-about Norma crisis at the Metropolitan Opera? I am sure she´d be great (here as Aida).
Agnes Baltsa - an immense presence on stage. She must have been completely mesmerizing to experience live in her prime, and was in impressively fine voice here (as Amneris).
Plácido Domingo - in very fine voice (as Radamés).
Angelika Kirchschlager - perhaps the ideal Octavian of today? (here as Octavian).
Christian Thielemann - does have a rather attention-seeking way of conducting (whether intentional is not for me to say), but the orchestra played gloriously with him (Meistersinger and Rosenkavalier).
Angelika Kirchschlager and Genia Kühmeier in the final scene of Rosenkavalier, Thielemann conducts:
Monday, 29 October 2007
Plácido Domingo is still the best Siegmund around. Stephen Milling is still the best Hunding around and Eva-Maria Westbroek is still a wonderful Sieglinde. Sir John Tomlinsons still performs Wotans monologue as the true highlight of Walküre it should be.
This time the Brünnhilde was Lisa Gasteen, who generally hits (almost all) the notes, but didn´t make any particular impression apart from that.
Antonio Pappano continued his brisk Keilberth-style conducting from Rheingold and fully deserved the thunderous applause he got.
Saturday, 8 September 2007
Looking at the whole affair rather dispassionately from the outside (I haven´t bought a ticket to the performances and I am no fan of Terfel), my take on the situation is as follows:
Bryn Terfel has actively been seeking mainstream stardom status as well as the accompanying fees. Upon achieving such status however, follows a higher degree of responsibility compared to an “ordinary” singer.
The ROH Ring is not just any opera production – it is probably the biggest single event of the past 5 years at the ROH, and with a set-up relying quite heavily on the presence of Bryn Terfel´s star quality. It´s understandable, of course, if Bryn Terfel wants to make changes in his future life-style, but the professional way to do this is to honour short-term commitments and then cancel or work something out with future engagements. It is deeply irresponsible towards the opera-going public not to mention the operatic management to cancel such a major appearance on such short notice. Even when deeper family problems than the much-quoted finger of his son may be at the core of this (which is none of our business, of course, despite mrs. Terfel chosing to divulge them to the Daily Mail).
Opera most certainly is not a matter of life and death, and certainly it shouldn´t take precedence over family – it is much simpler: It´s a job. Bryn Terfel signed a contract. In his business, contracts are signed years in advance. His privileged position in this business taken into consideration, you may reasonably expect him to plan his scheduled commitments allowing for smaller emergencies in the private sphere.
Again, all the above is only valid assuming he’s learned the part (Wanderer) and remembers the other two Wotans.
Looking somewhat dispassionately at this from the outside – I am personally quite unaffected by his non-Wotan-appearances, thinking him unsuitable in this repertoire anyway- the only explanation making sense to me is a combination of a lack of preparation with private problems. And this, in my opinion, is both deeply disrespectful and unprofessional behaviour.