Posted by: operatheaterink | October 21, 2013

Review: Bryn Terfel, The Broad Stage, Oct. 21, 2013

Bryn Terfel: The Consummate Performer in Santa Monica


By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

There is truly only ONE Bryn Terfel. He isn’t just an opera singer, as if that wouldn’t be enough. There is something inside his persona that drives him first and foremost to be a consummate performer. The Welsh bass-baritone’s recital at the Broad Stage on Oct. 18 was an eclectic mix of Broadway and Celtic songs, ballads, art songs, arias and Lieder. Whereas a Broadway star also often dominates the stage with acting and singing, the artistry of the performance isn’t as visible. Terfel has a superior voice which is technically flawless. He uses that technique to emphasize words, consonants and the phrases in songs that are often sung by Broadway stars, but he sings those very same songs with a distinct freshness and creativity second to none. It is often said that opera singers don’t perform well in musicals. They are too operatic and lack the proper acting skills. Likewise, Broadway singers can rarely sing opera. They aren’t operatic enough and don’t have the prerequisite vocal equipment. Bryn Terfel is a better actor than most Broadway stars, and a far better singer. And he uses his classically-trained voice to sing songs with a flexibility that is rare and unique. He plays with the words as he sings, almost as Shakespeare did with pen and paper. Yet his wordplaying isn’t coincidental — it’s planned. He can emphasize a consonant and change the whole meaning of a phrase. And when you hear his crisp diction, no subtitles are necessary if he is singing in the language of the audience. Every vowel and consonant is clean. I don’t know that this matters so much in opera, as singers often shade vowels particularly to enable superior sound. However, when singing art songs and country folk songs, the enunciation of every word can make an audience perk up and listen, or simply fall asleep.

Many recitalists move from one aria to another without speaking. Mr. Terfel seemed to enjoy speaking to the audience as if performing in a nightclub act. He began the show by expressing that he wondered if there were any movie directors in the audience since Russell Crowe was Javert in “Les Misérables” and Johnny Depp had been cast in “Sweeney Todd.” Of course this was an opera-appreciating audience, so Terfel and the audience smiled knowingly. Terfel is a superstar, yet if I mention his name to my civilian friends (I laugh), they have no idea who he is, which is a very sad state of affairs and flaw in our educational system. The lack of arts education in schools is creating computer nerds with no sophistication when it comes to the arts — another topic for another day.

So after a few tongue-in-cheek comments and anecdotes, Terfel began his recital with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening.” His unique charm was evident from the onset. He ended the song pianissimo.

An intimate theatre with superb acoustics, the Eli and Edythe Broad Stage is the ideal venue for artists to color their tones with serene pianissimos. It affords them the freedom to be flexible, and Terfel can sing a pianissimo so pianissimo that it is barely audible and holds the audience still.

Whether singing Lieder, ballads or songs — just as a writer is a storyteller with pen and paper — Terfel tells stories with text applied to sound. The enunciation, the musical accents, the clarity, the intonations — all of these enable him to narrate his stories. His facial expressions, acting and energy add to his characterizations.

After John Ireland’s “Sea-Fever” and “Vagabond,” Terfel’s storytelling took on the sounds of Schubert Lieder. When I was a child I often listened to Marian Anderson’s “Die Forelle” until one day I sat on the phonograph record. I was therefore very happy to revisit the poor little trout swimming in the brook. Many people probably listen to the Lied without knowing the story; however when Terfel sings it, there can be no doubt that the little trout will soon be dangling on the end of a fishing rod.

After “An Silvia,” pianist-accompanist Natalia Katyukova displayed her artistry with “Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen” (“Litany for the Feast of All Souls”).

“Rest in peace all souls who have . . . departed from this world.”

Terfel sang the Lied with sensitivity, musicianship and reverence.

He led the audience in a sing-along with “Loch Lomond.” I don’t know if the acoustics had anything to do with it, but there were some wonderful voices in the audience. We all sounded like a choir.

Next, a charming “Passing By”; a warmly sung “Danny Boy”; and a “Little Welsh Home” sung with pathos and feeling:

I am dreaming of the mountains of my home,
Of the mountains where in childhood I would roam.
I have dwelt ’neath southern skies,
Where the summer never dies,
But my heart is in the mountains of my home. . . .

And when God my soul will keep,
It is there [in the quiet churchyard down below] I want to sleep
With those dear old folks that loved me long ago.

Terfel concluded the first half of the program with “Ar Hyd y Nos” (“All Through the Night”) and “Molly Malone.”

Then after the “Salt Water Ballads” of Frederick Keel, he switched gears and gave us some of the bad boys in opera. He was most impressive with a full-voiced powerful “Son Lo Spirito” from Boito’s “Mefistofele”; enjoyable when singing “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from “Porgy & Bess”; and he had the audience in the palm of his hand as Don Giovanni when he went into the audience and flirted with two very embarrassed ladies while holding a rose.

After a bit of “Mack the Knife” from Kurt Weill’s “Threepenny Opera,” the program concluded with four songs that were sung by John Charles Thomas in the ’30s and ’40s: Oscar Rasbach’s “Trees”; the very familiar “Home on the Range”; “The Lord’s Prayer”; and a very comical piece by Greatrex Newman, “The Green Eyed Dragon.” Talk about storytelling — Terfel sang the various tempi with imaginative vocality. He grunted and made a variety of noises rarely heard before emanating from an opera singer. What a tour de force. Stupendous!

Continuing with an encore in the same vein, Flanders and Swann’s “The Gasman Cometh” proved to be an audience crowd-pleaser, and finally Schubert’s “Auf dem Wasser zu singen” was the highlight of the evening for me because it was sung sensitively and combined sumptuous singing with a rippling accompaniment.

The evening was laced with fun and a bit of Mitch Miller. But everything was so perfectly planned, including the two encores. Exactly two. I knew there would be no more. Terfel was warm, but somewhat removed. There was a fourth wall up even though he penetrated it to sing Giovanni in the audience. So the evening was enjoyable without being electrifying, stirring or thrilling. We all knew that Terfel would be going back to San Francisco to continue singing Falstaff. He is a phenomenal performer and talent. He is not a male Diva. He is charming, has a wonderful sense of humor, and is witty. But I personally wanted to push him a few times to force him to break his reserved demeanor, except when he used theatrical gestures to characterize his bad boys. I didn’t want everything to look so designed. It was like he was en route from San Francisco back to San Francisco. I wanted him to embrace the audience. He is a singular performer and a great recitalist with a dynamic presence. As an audience patron, I wanted him to be excited about performing for us since we were excited to see and hear him. Maybe he’ll grace the LA Opera stage as Hans Sachs in “Meistersinger” one day. Then he’ll be here just for us.