Bryn Terfel, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Charles Mackerras
BRYN TERFEL - TUTTO MOZART!
No composer has written more gracefully, more wittily for bass and bass-baritone than Mozart; and no contemporary singer has made more of that uniquely Mozartian combination of grace and wit than Bryn Terfel. As he says, "I sang Mozart in most of my major debuts: at La Scala in Milan, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, at Covent Garden, and at both English and Welsh National Opera. Mozart really wrote well for the bass-baritone voice, which is purely my voice."
In Le nozze di Figaro, the first of the three operas Mozart composed with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, we hear Terfel as both the philandering Count (a role he has not yet sung onstage), and as his manservant Figaro (which he first sang at Welsh National Opera in 1990). Terfel reveals two sides of the Count's personality; there is predatory charm in "Crudel! perchè finora" as he tries to interest Susanna in a secret rendezvous. Minutes later, in "Hai già vinta la causa...Vedrò mentr'io sospiro", he is once more the haughty aristocrat, furious that his servants are running rings around him. Figaro echoes the Count's anger in "Aprite un po' quegli occhi": faced with the wiles of a beautiful woman, the servant, like the master, is all at sea. In "Non più andrai", a more confident and not entirely likeable Figaro gloats that Cherubino can no longer play the "amorous butterfly". Nowhere do we see more clearly what Terfel calls "the twinkle in Mozart's eye".
Terfel again presents both master and servant from Don Giovanni, the second of the Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations. In "Madamina, il catalogo è questo", Terfel's Leporello (first heard at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1995) seems to hope that Giovanni's amorous prowess has rubbed off on him. Giovanni himself (a role Terfel first took in Paris in 1999) is at his most seductive in "Là ci darem la mano". Who could blame the unsophisticated Zerlina for melting into his arms? Later, in "Deh, vieni alla finestra", Giovanni serenades the (unseen and unheard) maidservant of Donna Elvira: when it comes to women, Giovanni is the complete egalitarian.
Terfel made his stage debut at Welsh National Opera in 1990 as Guglielmo from Così fan tutte, the last of the operas Mozart wrote with Da Ponte. The conductor, as on this recording, was Sir Charles Mackerras. Mozart knew that, if we are to believe what we see in Così, the music must be absolutely sincere, despite the plethora of disguises and deceptions. In "Soave sia il vento", Fiordiligi and Dorabella, in the company of Don Alfonso, bid farewell to their soldier-lovers; we know that the women are being tricked, yet the music cuts to the quick. It will be some years, we assume, before Terfel plays Alfonso onstage. In age and physique, he is closer to Guglielmo. We hear him, in disguise, as an Albanian persuading his best friend's partner to swap love-tokens with him. Behind the disguise, the orchestra tells us, Guglielmo's heart beats as excitedly as Dorabella's.
Die Zauberflöte is more philosophical quest than social comedy. At its centre is Tamino, a noble man in search of enlightenment. His unwilling companion Papageno has a quest of his own: he seeks the Papagena who will bear his children. Although Terfel has not sung the role onstage, his performances here suggest that he has the measure of this genial Everyman. "Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja" introduces the happy-go-lucky birdcatcher. Yet there is more to Papageno than first meets the eye. In "Bei Männern", his duet with Pamina, his depth of feeling matches hers, while "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen", with its twinkling glockenspiel, is as heartfelt as anything in Mozart. By contrast, "Papageno...Papagena" shows him and the love of his life clucking ecstatically to each other. At such moments, and provided that the role is sung, as here, with both humour and empathy, Papageno seems closer to Mozart's heart than Tamino.
A year before the premiere of Die Zauberflöte, its librettist Emanuel Schikaneder (also the first Papageno) unveiled another quest opera, Der Stein der Weisen, oder Die Zauberinsel ("The Philosophers' Stone, or The Enchanted Island"). Most of the music is by Benedikt Schack and Franz Xaver Gerl, but Mozart probably contributed at least one piece, "Nun, liebes Weibchen". Given Mozart's lifelong devotion to onomatopoeic nonsense, it is easy to imagine him relishing a duet in which a husband sings while his wife can only mew.
"Diggi, daggi, schurry, murry" is nonsense of a different kind. Bastien und Bastienne had its premiere in 1768, when Mozart was twelve years old. In splendidly sonorous gibberish, the sorcerer Colas invokes sympathetic spirits to help shepherd Bastien regain Bastienne's love. (The opera had its premiere in the garden of Franz Anton Mesmer, whose name gave us the word "mesmerize", and whose hypnotic skills Mozart later satirized in Così fan tutte.)
Some of Mozart's most powerful pieces were "insertion" arias, usually written at the request of a specific singer, sometimes inserted into his own operas, more often into others'. He composed only a few for bass; Bryn Terfel offers the most characterful. "Così dunque tradisci" was written, probably in 1783, for Ludwig Fischer, who created the role of Osmin in Die Entführung aus dem Serail and wanted to show himself equally at home in Italian opera. "Un bacio di mano", meanwhile, was written in 1788 for Francesco Albertarelli, Vienna's first Don Giovanni. The text's sardonic wit suggests that it may be the work of Da Ponte.
Besides insertion arias, Mozart also wrote concert arias, which, standing free of any theatrical context, are often intensely dramatic. One such is "Io ti lascio, o cara", composed in 1791, around which a mystery hangs. Years after Mozart's death, his widow Constanze suggested that her husband had supplied only the string accompaniment, the vocal line being the work of his friend Gottfried von Jacquin. Although Mozart did not enter it into his work catalogue, some modern scholars accept that he wrote it all.
On the other hand, he left "Männer suchen stets zu naschen" incomplete. Thought to have been composed around 1783, it was possibly intended for an unfinished (indeed, barely started) opera based on a translation of Carlo Goldoni's play Der Diener zweier Herren ("The Servant of Two Masters"). We hear it in the 1951 completion by Swiss composer Rudolf Moser.
At the end of Bryn Terfel's survey, we may find ourselves thinking that Mozart's capacious humanity is revealed most clearly in the music he wrote for basses and bass-baritones. As Terfel suggests, "Mozart's music is the pinnacle of human imagination. It brings life, and it encompasses everything."
I'd Take Mozart to a Bar
Bryn Terfel presents a birthday gift to Mozart
Let's talk about the repertoire of your new CD of Mozart arias. Is this a collection of your favourite arias or is it just a delightful mixture?
When the bells rang on 27 January this year in Salzburg to mark the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the world became drunk on Mozart. For many people he represents the pinnacle of music - whether it's his symphonies, vocal, piano, chamber or choral works. In one little stroke of his pen he has been able to describe so many feelings. So I guess the first reason for this recording is that it's my little contribution to those anniversary celebrations. But also I wanted to delve deeper into Mozart's arias, including the lesser-known concert arias.
On this disc you manage to sing Leporello both and Don Giovanni. How do you pull it off?
Well, the fact that I've performed both these roles on stage makes it much easier. And it's fantastic to have somebody like Sir Charles Mackerras leading the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in the wonderful Town Hall in Glasgow. Sir Charles has made countless recordings and done countless performances of these operas. And he has been conducting since the age of eleven. One of the concert arias was written by Mozart when he himself was eleven years old, so in a way Sir Charles has been brushed by the same brush as Mozart.
Are there any new roles you have just tried out on this recording?
Yes. It would have been easy for me just to sing the arias that I have known and performed, but I wanted to try out things like the Count's Aria for instance, from the Marriage of Figaro. And Papageno is a role that I have never performed - so I wanted to delve a little bit into that character. But the concert arias are so varied: the fantastic 'Aspiri rimorsi atroci' starts with an amazing recitative and the aria has such dynamics and range that I can only try and attempt it. In a more light-hearted mood there's 'Männer suchen stets zu naschen': you know, men are always on the lookout for girls who tickle their fancy - they want to 'nibble' on these sweet things. But in Mozart there is always a little moral to the story, in this case: 'fathers, keep your sweet things locked up'!
When you listen to the words of 'Männer suchen stets zu naschen', what do you think Mozart was like with women? Was he a bit of a Don Giovanni himself?
Well, of course. There is always a twinkle in his eye, a little wink that shows Mozart had a sense of humour. Delving into these concert arias, you can see his mastery of many different styles. There is one aria, 'Diggi, daggi', that he wrote when he was just eleven years old. Listen to the string introduction - it's astonishing that he had such a grasp of orchestration at that age.
You made your opera debut at Welsh National Opera as Guglielmo. Have you sung it on disc before?
No, this is the first time that I've recorded Guglielmo, but it's a very important part for me. Così was the very first Mozart opera that I sang, and it was my British debut. I'd just left university and was immediately cast as Guglielmo by Sir Charles Mackerras - he was the first conductor that I ever auditioned for. I have very vivid memories of that: it was a very nervous day! You know, a young Welsh bass-baritone auditioning at the very start of his profession - to be given the role of Guglielmo was wonderful.
What would you say is the most important experience you've had when working on Mozart?
I think as a singer you always tend to remember the very first time you perform an opera. The very first time I sang Figaro, for instance, was in Santa Fé, which is a beautiful location in New Mexico. It was in the middle of the desert, and you expected to see cowboys appearing at any moment. It was a wonderful production and the cast included people like Susan Graham and Heidi Grant Murphy. We were all young singers just starting out with Mozart. I sang Mozart in all of my debuts - be that in La Scala in Milan, in the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in Covent Garden, in Wales for Welsh National Opera.
Mozart's music seems so light and easy, but I imagine performing it is quite challenging. Before you started recording the Papagena/Papageno duet, both you and Miah Persson said it's one of the most difficult numbers in this recording. Why is that?
From my point of view it's because for the last year I've been singing music at the other end of the spectrum - Wagner. So coming back to performing Mozart is like having a vehicle oil change - you have to check how your technique works with this composer. Young singers should never think that performing Mozart is one of the easiest things they can do. In fact, it's the complete opposite - it could be the most difficult. The repertoire that we have on this disc is a challenge. But I have to admit that Mozart really could write for the bass-baritone voice - exactly my voice - which means that I have so many roles that I can sing - from Papageno to Masetto to Figaro to Count to Don Giovanni to Leporello. It's just amazing the spectrum that's available for us to perform. And let's face it: every opera house wants Mozart in their seasons, so it's bread and butter for a performer also!
For the many people who bought your last disc, Simple Gifts, if you had to recommend a piece from this disc to introduce people to Mozart, which one would you choose?
Mozart is so well known that I don't think I need to introduce anyone to his work. As I said, it's the pinnacle of people's imagination where music is concerned. But if I was to be asked for my top three, they would have to be 'Non più andrai' and the Così fan tutte Trio, and of the concert arias, both 'Così dunque tradici' and 'Aspiri rimorsi atroci' are very special.
If Wolfgang Amadeus was still around and you had the chance to meet him, what would you ask him?
I enjoy collecting art, and sometimes I buy contemporary works. I imagine meeting Mozart would be like when you meet the artist himself and suddenly you feel so nervous that you can't think of anything to ask them! So instead I'd take Mozart to the perfect place - a bar in Scotland, with a glass of Lagavulin malt whisky for me, and for him... I'd choose something that's been in a sherry oak cask for quite a while, perhaps a 15-year-old Macallan. We'd have a good chat and I don't think it would be about music!