A wonderful singer and a great communicator, Bryn Terfel is fast becoming a living legend. Enjoy his huge power and emotional punch to the max on his recent album Bryn Terfel: Wagner.
Concert Review /
Classic FM (London) / 01. July 2003
Terfel fully embodies these symbols of male existential pain [Dutchman, Sachs, Wolfram, Wotan, Amfortas], singing with unusual richness, intelligence, and attention to dramatic detail. The highlight comes with two excerpts from "Parsifal": Terfel voices the wounded arias of Amfortas with strength and inwardness, as Abbado and his Berliners provide him with a glorious halo of sound.
Record Review /
Billboard (New York) / 09. March 2002
This disc is only of extracts, but already it is clear that Terfel is going to be the outstanding Wagnerian bass-baritone of his generation. His tone colour is rich and full in the best tradition, his declamation vivid and lively. The two great monologues of Hans Sachs are delivered with an insight and maturity that bode well for the DG Meistersinger, while Wolfram's 'O Star of Eve' similarly demonstrates this singer's lyrical potential. Wotan's Farewell from "Die Walküre" and the Dutchman's Monologue find him equally secure and thrilling in heroic mode, with a tormented Amfortas thrown in for good measure. Suddenly the future looks brighter.
Record Review /
BBC Music Magazine (London) / 01. April 2002
A must-have for any collection.
Record Review /
Classic FM (London) / 01. November 2003
So gesehen ist die Wagner-CD ein Versprechen für die Zukunft. Sie führt den Sänger in den Rollen vor, die er irgendwann singen wird. Phänomenal, wie er Phrasen aufbaut, beeindruckend die dynamische Differenzierung, über die er als Amfortas, Wotan oder Hans Sachs verfügt.
Record Review /
Bühne (Wien) / 01. March 2002
Bryn Terfel - an update
"This astonishingly gifted bass-baritone seems able to touch with magic whatever he sets his voice to ..." (Gramophone, November 1995)
In just over a decade since his stage debut in 1990, as Guglielmo (Così fan tutte) and Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro) at Welsh National Opera, Bryn Terfel has become one of the brightest stars in the operatic firmament. Early in his career Mozart figured most prominently, especially Figaro, the role in which Terfel made his English National Opera debut, also in 1990, and his American debut at Santa Fe in 1991. The role of Jokanaan became the next milestone in a triumphant progress across the world's stages when he made his sensational Salzburg Festival debut in 1992 in Strauss's Salome. Invitations immediately followed to appear at the great opera houses of London, Paris and Amsterdam, and at the Vienna State Opera, where he triumphed as Figaro in 1993.
The rest is history, from which here are just a few highlights: He returned to Welsh National Opera in 1993 to sing Ford in Falstaff; in 1994 he sang Figaro at Covent Garden and at his wildly acclaimed New York Metropolitan Opera debut; in 1995, Leporello in Don Giovanni at the Met and Jokanaan at Salzburg; in 1996, Leporello at Salzburg; in 1997, his La Scala debut as Figaro. More recently, he has added another signature role to his repertoire: Verdi's Falstaff, which he performed with enormous success in 1999 at the re-opening of Covent Garden, the Sydney Opera House and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. His appearances in 2000 included four roles in Les Contes d'Hoffmann and the title role in Don Giovanni at the Met, Stravinsky's Nick Shadow from The Rake's Progress in San Francisco and Berlioz's Mephistopheles at the Edinburgh Festival. In 2001, his globe-hopping itinerary took him to Vienna for Don Giovanni, Salzburg for Falstaff, Munich for Figaro and Falstaff, and Tokyo for Figaro.
Conspicuous by its absence in the above overview list is the name of Richard Wagner, the composer whom Terfel-watchers have particularly had their eye on. After his triumph as Jokanaan in Richard Strauss's Salome at Salzburg in 1992, he was offered the role of Wotan, but Georg Solti advised him to wait: "Now we must put you in a box, and keep you safe!" That was 10 years ago, and Wotan is still not fixed in his plans. His disc of arias from 1996 contains two generous previews of Terfel the Wagnerian, as he sings the Dutchman's Monologue and Wolfram's "Song to the Evening Star". He sang his first Wolfram in Tannhäuser in 1997 at the Met.
Terfel was born in 1965 in North Wales and studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where he graduated in 1989. While still a student he won several prizes, including the Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Scholarship (1988) and the Gold Medal of the Guildhall School (1989). That same year he represented Wales in the "Singer of the World" Competition, winning the lieder prize. In the watershed year of 1993, he signed his first exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon and was named "Newcomer of the Year" at the International Classical Music Awards.
Since then his voice has graced numerous complete opera recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, including Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel (the Servant and Wissmann) under Neeme Järvi, Strauss's Salome (Jokanaan) and Puccini's Tosca (Angelotti) under Giuseppe Sinopoli, Mozart's Don Giovanni (Leporello) under Claudio Abbado, Lehár's The Merry Widow (Baron Mirko Zeta) and Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (Nick Shadow) under John Eliot Gardiner, as well as singing the title role in Gardiner's recording of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro for Archiv Produktion.
Also in his Deutsche Grammophon discography are Berlioz's Damnation of Faust (Mephisto), conducted by Myung-Whun Chung, and yet a live recording of the 1993 New Year's Eve Wagner Gala, given by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Claudio Abbado. On that occasion, one critic singled him out as the concert's musical highlight: "He gently illuminated the Evening Star and evoked the lovely scent of the Nuremberg lilacs in front of Hans Sachs's door as though there were no TV cameras, no gala - nothing but the music." Further indications of Terfel's powerful stage presence are provided by his recording of arias by Händel under Sir Charles Mackerras and his Grammy-winning CD of German, Italian, French and Russian arias, in which he is accompanied by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by James Levine.
Bryn Terfel is rewarding the many admirers who have waited impatiently for him to add more works of Wagner to his growing list of operatic conquests. Following on from the present disc, he tackled the role of Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger - a character interpreted with particular distinction by two of his idols, Hans Hotter and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
Wagner's Failed Heroes
In January 1854 Wagner wrote to a friend: "But what is freedom? Freedom is sincerity. He who is sincere - that is, true to himself and in perfect harmony with nature - is free." None of Wagner's heroes is in perfect harmony with nature, which for Wagner meant being in perfect harmony with oneself. Rather, all are engaged in a desperate search for this unity, a quest that also constitutes an attempt to escape from the divisive nature of existence, from experiences refracted through countless prisms, from tormenting self-searching and from the need to keep on coming to terms with one crushing defeat after another. "Harmony with nature" is Wagner's way of describing a world at peace with itself and inhabited by happy human beings, a utopia that is ever-present in all his great music dramas, providing the backdrop against which their disaster-laden plots unfold.
The Flying Dutchman is an early example of this Wagnerian vision. Here is a mariner in league with the devil and forced to sail the seven seas until the Day of Judgement unless a woman lifts the curse on him through the steadfastness of her love. His great monologue outlines his position: every seven years he goes ashore and vainly seeks the woman who will redeem him, after which he is forced to put back to sea, with the same sequence of events repeating itself endlessly. The Dutchman is an outsider in society, a misguided individual, a man condemned to a restless existence and pinning all his hopes on something that he is unable to achieve himself. He is dependent on a woman, whom Wagner describes as "the woman of the future, an infinitely womanly woman who does not yet exist but who is longed for and whose existence is already suspected". Her unquestioning love is the precondition not only for his redemption, but also for his inner peace and his union - or reunion - with nature.
The case of Wotan is completely different. Wotan is a political animal, a god who imposes order on the world and soon becomes hopelessly caught up in his own treaties. For Wagner, Wotan illustrates the failure of politics in general: for him, the Ring symbolizes a world ruined by politics. Interested only in power politics, Wotan is a legislator, the lord of laws and treaties, but also an adventurer, a liar and a cheat, stirring men up against each other and using them for his own ends - for Wagner, he is the epitome of the modern politician. But he is also a husband with a roving eye, the father of nine illegitimate valkyries, including his "Wishmaid" Brünnhilde, whom he loves more than anyone else in the world: he is tied to her by a unique bond, she is his "heart's holiest pride", as he calls her. All the more deeply is he hurt by her disobedience: she wounds his pride but without entirely destroying his love for her. For Wagner, love was the very antithesis of political power, with the result that in Wotan's Farewell it is the loving father who briefly triumphs over the politician, revealing his private emotions in a way that he has never done before and will never do again. Inwardly torn, he yields to Brünnhilde's entreaty that only the mightiest of heroes may win her as his wife. At this point in his Farewell, we glimpse the human side of the political strategist who is usually so ruthless in his actions. And the music acquires an emotional grandeur that makes the god seem sympathetic in an unsuspected way.
Compared with Wotan, Hans Sachs seems wise from the outset, a man in perfect harmony with himself, with the result that his word carries the greatest weight in the Mastersingers' guild. According to Wagner, Sachs is "the final manifestation of the artistically productive spirit of the folk", a poet who mediates between tradition and modernity, demanding innovations but without completely abandoning tradition, and combining life and art. His Fliedermonolog is a hymn to this conciliatory approach to life. But Sachs is also thoughtless and must accept a share of the blame for the night-time riot that ends Act Two and that sets the inhabitants of Nuremberg at each other's throats. His Wahnmonolog in Act Three takes these ambivalences as its starting point. Here Sachs laments the destructive forces in society that find such violent and explosive expression. But he also hints at the beneficial effects of Wahn, a concept to whose ambiguities Wagner was fully alive: on the one hand it describes man's egoistic qualities, his insistence on implementing his own desires and, as such, the opposite of all that provides the foundations of society and holds it together; and on the other hand, there is the visionary prospect of human altruism, a life in which modern man no longer feels alienated and his lost unity with nature can be restored. Such a life is prefigured by Sachs.
Tannhäuser, too, strives for this unity. He feels at home neither at the landgrave's court nor in the Venusberg. An anarchist by nature, he is as hostile to the strict rules of society as to the mere sensuality of Venus. As a foil, Wagner has introduced the figure of Wolfram von Eschenbach, a character who seems effortlessly to uphold courtly conventions and a man of exemplary correctitude who in the Minstrels' Contest strikes an old-fashioned, academic note when singing of love, only to emerge at the end as Tannhäuser's surprising rival: the evening star that he hymns in Act Three is Venus, the goddess of sensual love whom - much to Wolfram's horror - Tannhäuser had earlier praised.
That culture is based on self-control was a central thesis of Freud that Wagner anticipated in the figure of Amfortas in Parsifal. "Looked at closely," Wagner told Mathilde Wesendonck in 1859, "Amfortas is the focus and main object of our attention. It suddenly struck me that he is my third-act Tristan immeasurably intensified." Here Wagner was no doubt thinking of the double burden of suffering that Amfortas has to bear: not only his wound, which was inflicted by the sacred lance and which refuses to heal, but also his inability to master his desires. Both of these make him an egoist who thinks only of his own redemption and who desires only his own death, with the result that he hides the life-giving Grail. That he thereby places at risk the lives of the knights of the Grail is of little concern to him. It is a hopeless situation that will be resolved only by Parsifal, the pure fool "made wise by pity". But it is also a situation that shows the way in which, in Wagner's eyes, human self-absorption leads to existential misery on a universal scale.
Time and again Wagner varies the same underlying idea in his heroes, showing them failing to achieve their ends both as a result of inherent shortcomings and in consequence of given social conditions. Hence his lifelong conviction that genuine amelioration could come about only through a radical change in human awareness and human behaviour. As a result, Wagner hoped to establish an "aesthetic world order" in which freedom could be achieved through "harmony with nature". This is undoubtedly a beautiful dream and one which, being unrealizable, will always be with us.