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WNO Celebrity Series: Bryn Terfel

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Bad Boys, B. Terfel,
Swedish Radio Orchestra

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Verdi, Falstaff, B. Terfel, C. Abbado
Perhaps the savviest part of the budget-minded restructuring at Washington National Opera, in the face of the financial crisis, was the programming of two solo recitals. The Plácido Domingo Celebrity Series, in essence, features big-name stars that the company is not likely to be able to draw for one of its productions. The series got off to a grand start last month with a blockbuster recital by Juan Diego Flórez, and it continued on Saturday night with an equally palatable concert by Bryn Terfel. The celebrated Welsh bass-baritone has been one of the most sought-after opera singers on world stages since his discovery in the late 1980s, but this was his first time on the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House. When Terfel turned 40 in 2005, there was some talk about cutting back his performance schedule -- a wise choice both in terms of vocal health and for the sake of his young children. It has paid off in that he still sounds in excellent voice and seemed relatively relaxed and healthy, even having slimmed his profile a bit.

In charming commentary between numbers, Terfel characterized his program as focusing on the "misfits and malcontents of the operatic stage," putting its cast of villains into the same sort of rogues' gallery as his recent aria CD, Bad Boys. Opening with the aria "Udite, udite, o rustici" of Dulcamara, the mostly harmless snake oil salesman of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, set a rather light-hearted tone for the evening. This was only helped by Terfel bringing on, as props, a can of a popular energy drink and a bottle of beer -- the latter of which he actually chugged on stage. Terfel's bonhomie continued throughout the evening as he established a cheerful rapport with the audience, adding a loud wolf-whistle at the appropriate spots in "Son lo spirito che nega" (from Boito's Mefistofele) and then afterward encouraging the audience to respond with their own whistles -- a challenge many in the house gladly accepted. (Terfel recounted that his border collies at home went "absolutely bonkers" as he rehearsed this piece.) Vocally these pieces were the sort of thing Terfel is ideally suited for -- along with the Honor Aria from Falstaff, a role for which Terfel is justly renowned (see this video from the 2008 Proms) -- the bluster of his higher range and the rough charm of his stage presence.

Other Articles:

Robert Battey, Bryn Terfel at Kennedy Center (Washington Post, March 14)

Bryn Terfel calls for young musicians to follow their dreams (WalesOnline, February 28)
The bass side of the voice, especially at one particularly low note in the Boito aria, was less robust. Somewhat strangely, he gave "O du mein holder Abendstern," from Wagner's Tannhaüser, an almost transparent, even underpowered sound: the sort of interpretation that is possible in a concert setting but that might not work on stage. Also strange, it was the only Wagner on the program at a time when many ears are on Terfel's Wotan in the Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera -- part of a cast, Anne Midgette recently speculated, chosen for the simulcast rather than the house because its smaller voices are easier to record. Terfel reached his apex of sound and grit in the "Credo" aria from Verdi's Otello, a performance of snide, snarling, sinister dark wit that does make one curious about what sort of Iago he would make.

Catherine Naglestad, the lead in the first cast of WNO's current production of Madama Butterfly, was scheduled to join Terfel but fell ill. Her counterpart in the second cast, the lovely Ana María Martínez, stepped in valiantly to save the show, with a suave, contained rendition of "Vissi d'arte" and dropping the other planned aria from La Forza del Destino. The Opera House Orchestra was its usual solid self in the lovely overture from that work, which opened the concert -- surely no one doubts that programming two selections from Forza, which is notoriously cursed, contributed to Ms. Naglestad's illness. She is lucky that she was not crushed by a falling light fixture. The other orchestral selections, from Lohengrin and Die Fledermaus were competently played and largely unremarkable. The rest of the second half was given over to music theater selections.

Three encores began with one of the evening's most affecting selections, My Little Welsh Home, a song steeped in nationalistic Heimweh for the rural Wales of Terfel's upbringing -- embedded in the video above. The piece was offered in connection with the recently passed national holiday of Wales, St. David's Day, on March 1 -- "Cymru am byth" to all our Welsh friends! The duet "Là ci darem la mano," from Mozart's Don Giovanni, was obviously added at the very last minute, since the orchestra did not even have parts, so that accompaniment had to be provided by a piano at the back of the stage -- Terfel's Mozart is a known quantity, and the chemistry between him and Martínez was flirty and fun. The final encore, the lovely Viennese Christmas carol "Still, still, still," came from Terfel's unpardonably cheesy Christmas album, a sad reminder of his execrable Simple Gifts disc, which brought him a Classical Crossover Grammy, a badge of shame if ever there was one.

The Plácido Domingo Celebrity Series will continue next season, with recitals by Angela Gheorghiu and Deborah Voigt.

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