Terfel, Bryn


ToscaGiacomo Puccini - Tosca

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Jonathan Kent, Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann, Bryn Terfel, Lukas Jakobski, Jeremy White, Hubert Francis, Zhengzhong Zhou, William Payne, John Morrisey | Opus Arte, BBC2

I recently reviewed a production of Tosca on Blu-ray recorded at the Arena di Verona and summed it up by saying “This is not the best Tosca you’ll see by a long shot, but it’s a good performance nonetheless.” As if to prove the point, just a few weeks later comes a version of Tosca recorded at the Royal Opera House earlier this year that, if not the best Tosca you’ll ever see (though it could make claims to be up there among the best) you could at least safely say that it is certainly among the best you will hear being produced anywhere in the world at the moment.

In terms of concept, design and staging, there is nothing particularly innovative, imaginative, original or even too exciting about Jonathan Kent’s direction for this Royal Opera House production, which dates back to 2006. It adheres to the period locations and action as they are laid out in the original libretto, each of the three acts recognisably taking place in specific locations in Rome - Act 1 in the church of Sant’ Andrea, Act 2 in the Palazzo Farnese, Act 3 on top of the Castel Sant’ Angelo - actual locations that have been used in the past for filmed versions of Puccini’s opera. If there’s little that is striking about the stage designs, which are functional at best, Kent stages the dramatic action within them to the full extent of the verismo realism that the opera calls out for. All those major moments within each of the three acts - the Te Deum at the end of Act 1, the death of Scarpia in Act 2, and the powerful climax of Act 3 - are designed to achieve maximum impact. Everything is as you would expect it, there’s nothing clever attempted, and really nothing needs to be done with this particular opera. If it’s staged according to the indications of the libretto, if the dramatic action simply allows the score to dictate the pace and drive of the developments and the emotional pitch, and if it’s sung well, you’re more than half-way there with Tosca.

Tosca

What distinguishes a good traditional production of Tosca from many others, including the aforementioned Arena di Verona production, and what makes this Royal Opera House production something special, is the casting and the ability of those performers to bring something of their own unique character and ability to the work. It’s hard to imagine a more stellar contemporary cast in the three principal roles than the one assembled here. As Floria Tosca, Angela Gheorghiu is the ultimate diva playing a diva - a fact that she acknowledges and clearly relishes. Those characteristics can often be pushed a little too far with this particular singer, who often plays the diva whether it’s called for or not, but here at least it’s appropriate and Gheorghiu is totally convincing. It’s more than just good casting of course, since, as ever, Gheorghiu sings superbly. And not just from a technical viewpoint - which is hard to fault - but it’s also an impassioned performance that is perfectly judged with complete understanding of her character and fits in well with the overall tone of the whole production. Consummately professional then - you would expect no less - but Gheorghiu is also genuinely impressive on every level.

Jonas Kaufmann is another performer who continues to impress, slipping effortlessly into whatever role he plays with a great deal of personality, but more than impress, the manner in which he brings that extraordinary voice to bear on such familiar roles is absolutely astonishing and quite unlike any previous account you might have heard of that role, so far is it from a typical tenor voice. His recent version of Massanet’s Werther for Vienna and the Paris Opéra, for example, couldn’t have been more different than that of Rolando Villazon at Covent Garden in one of his signature roles, and likewise, Kaufmann’s powerfully controlled, dark near-baritone boom makes his Cavaradossi here totally unlike Marcelo Alvarez or indeed any how any other classic tenor would perform the role. There is a fear that with such a powerful voice he could end up bellowing the role, particularly as there is ample opportunity for it, but Kaufmann retains complete control over the voice and the character, dropping it to quieter phrasing where it is required. I’m not totally convinced by the heroic nature of his performance here, which doesn’t let in a great deal of humanity, but I suppose that’s how Puccini mainly scores the role.

Tosca

Bryn Terfel as Scarpia likewise has to make the most of how his role is scored and try to strike a balance between a human and a caricature. He also sings wonderfully and certainly looks the part with enough physical presence and steel in his vocal delivery to make the evil pronouncements of the Chief of Police, heavily underscored as they are by Puccini, more than menacing enough, so the additional grimaces and sneers perhaps aren’t all that necessary. The singing performances are all marvellous then, making the most of the roles and trying to find some balance and level of humanity in the characters - which isn’t always easy in this opera - but best of all is how well they work together. On a vocal level the singing is perfectly complementary and there appears to be no struggle for dominance on the acting side either, each of them existing within their own characters but working with each other in a dramatically convincing manner. It makes it very easy then for the viewer to become wrapped up in the melodramatic events that occur over the 24 hour period of the story.

That’s as much to do with the staging however, so while you can criticise Jonathan Kent’s lack of imagination in the production design and the stage direction, it does at least work effectively on a dramatic level. Part of the reason for this is the decision not to downplay the opera’s controversial depictions of violence. Make no mistake, it’s all there in the libretto, from the extended torture scene through to the attempted rape, murder and executions, but some directors might choose to underplay these elements, particularly to mitigate against Puccini’s full-blooded score. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, and there’s certainly no right or wrong way to do it. If you are aiming for realism in the set designs and you have singers who are also good actors, then it makes sense to let them fully enter into the roles and the cast here manage to do that without too much operatic grimacing or mannerisms. Matched with a perfectly judged performance of the Royal Opera House orchestra under Antonio Pappano (that has all the dynamism that is lacking in the aforementioned Verona production), the result is an impressive, involving and, yes, near perfect account of Puccini’s “shabby little shocker” as you could expect to see done anywhere in the world today.

Richard Wagner - Siegfried

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Fabio Luisi, Robert Lepage, Deborah Voigt, Patricia Bardon, Jay Hunter Morris, Gerhard Siegel, Bryn Terfel, Eric Owens | The Met: Live in HD - November 5, 2011

I’m sure there are few productions of Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen tetrology – the most ambitious and gargantuan production for any opera company to undertake – that are not beset with numerous difficulties and set-backs (even Bayreuth seem to be finding it difficult to engage a director willing to take on such a challenge at the moment), but the Metropolitan Opera in New York certainly haven’t made it easy for themselves with their 2010-12 production. The new technology designed and constructed to meet Robert Lepage’s concept was certainly an ambitious and innovative solution to maintaining the necessary consistency, commonality and fluidity that runs through each of the four Ring operas, but it has had more than its share of teething problems across Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. The news that the maestro James Levine’s health problems had forced him to stand down from Met conducting duties this season was also quite a blow to the production. All of this however seems relatively minor in comparison to the challenge of finding a Siegfried to replace the one who has just succumbed to illness only weeks before the opening of the critical third instalment.

Siegfried

Enter tenor Jay Hunter Morris from Paris, Texas to replace the indisposed Gary Lehman, seemingly unfazed by the challenge of stepping into one of the most difficult roles in the entire opera repertoire on one of the biggest stages in the world of opera. A man either with no concept of the notion of fear or one who acts out of blithe innocence for a heroic endeavour, and as such, there can be no more perfect a match for the role of Siegfried. Jay Hunter Morris fits the bill on this count and in the other areas that matter. He’s not the most lyrical or dramatic heldentenor you will ever hear in the role, but there are few enough Wagnerian tenors in the world that fit that description that are capable of stepping into the role of Siegfried at a few weeks’ notice and Morris sings the role exceptionally well, carrying it off with courage, enthusiasm, stamina and personality, looking every inch a classic Siegfried. He’s certainly capable of slaying this particular dragon and that he does it so confidently is quite an achievement.

An achievement also, I’m happy to say now that we’re fully into the third part, is the gradual evolution of Lepage’s vision of the Ring cycle. Relying entirely on a huge heavy and complex piece of machinery, with no backdrops other than the computer generated images and lighting projected onto it, and little even in the way of props, the Machine was a risky gamble, and yes, it’s had its technical problems along the way. How well it works on a conceptual level is also debatable, but in terms of how it allows consistency, balance and fluidity, tackling complex scene changes, without unnecessary distraction or taking the focus away from the singers, is perfectly judged and balanced. Although undoubtedly difficult and complex to achieve, here in Siegfried it gives the impression of simplicity, managing to morph quickly and impressively from one scene and mood to the next without being overly showy. Less is definitely more when it comes to dealing with Wagner’s blend of myths and concepts – Lepage understands this, Jay Hunter Morris understand this, and so too does Fabio Luisi, taking over capably from Levine and dealing admirably with the challenges that this difficult stage in Wagner’s masterwork presents.

Siegfried

There is however no element and no minor role that doesn’t present challenges for the individual singers and the performers in Siegfried, or for the director and conductor who has to keep a consistency between them and with the other parts of the tetraology. The dwarf Mime can be played and sung with too much comic exaggeration, but Gerhard Siegel has the experience to enter more fully and thoughtfully into the role, and fits in well with the tone already established in the production. There’s a darker impulse and desire lying beneath that chimes with the nature of his brother Alberich, re-evoked here again after Das Rheingold in the gorgeously rich deep tones of Eric Owens. Much of this is just colour to the overall purpose of Siegfried, but it’s vital that it fits in with the richness of the colour that Wagner interweaves into the musical tapestry for the interaction and motivations of main characters. There are perhaps too many echoes and motifs to juggle satisfactorily in this particular opera and not enough depth of plotting to gve it sufficient character of its own – although it’s a work of absolute genius on the part of Wagner to develop and extend this method – and consequently it’s not always done as well as it is managed here.

What helps ground the opera however are the importance of the roles and the performances of the central characters of Wotan, the Wanderer and Brünnhilde. Having grown steadily into the role after a solid but unimpressive Das Rheingold followed by a significantly more commanding Die Walküre, Bryn Terfel’s first Seigfried Wotan is simply wonderful here. His character’s motivations and personal conflicts of interest are difficult to make work dramatically, but if you just take Wotan at his word in song – and this production allows him the space to explore the character deeply that way – then he is an utterly convincing, flawed, tragic character. It’s a great performance. Scarcely less of a challenge dramatically and vocally, Deborah Voigt might not entirely satisfy critics of her Brünnhilde in Die Walküre – weak only in only some areas, I thought – but she rose to the challenge here in Siegfried, her casting fortuitously seeming to work well not only with Terfel’s Wotan in the previous Ring instalment, but complementing well with the humanity in Jay Hunter Morris’ performance.

I’m not sure that the Metropolitan Ring will be ever considered a classic or a revolutionary new look at Wagner’s masterwork, but through good choices in the casting – along with more than a little bit of luck – and through a thoughtful, considered and balanced approach to the score and the production design, those performers are given full range of interpretation and expression, which if it is not revelatory, is at least consistent and of the highest quality. The standard has been set at a high level and the scene is now set for the Twilight of the Gods. Bring on Götterdämmerung.

WalkureRichard Wagner - Die Walküre

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | James Levine, Robert Lepage, Deborah Voigt, Bryn Terfel, Stephanie Blythe, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Jonas Kaufmann, Hans-Peter König | The Met: Live in HD - May 14, 2011

The second part of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Die Walküre, closed the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series for a 2010-11 season that had opened with the first of the Met’s new and ambitious Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold. Robert Lepage’s production of the prelude of the epic opera cycle certainly showed a lot of ambition and ingenuity, with a specially designed and constructed piece of twisting, revolving high-tech machinery that would serve as a backdrop and stage over and above the (reinforced) Met stage, but as to whether this Ring cycle would be one of the greats, well, like any staging of the complete work, judgements really need to be reserved until we get to Die Walküre. On the basis of now having two parts of Wagner’s massive work performed (with the remaining two parts Siegfried and Götterdämmerung to be staged in the Met’s 2011-12 season), it’s still a little too early to say, but the Lepage production is certainly looking like being a highly memorable new staging of the Ring Cycle.

What was at least already evident from Das Rheingold, beyond the obvious and impressive ingenuity of the morphing huge mechanical structure of “planks”, was the quality of the singing that lent the prelude’s entertaining fairytale of gods, giants and dwarfs with their lust for gold and power a deeper and rather more human quality than the opening part of the story is traditionally accorded. Whether that element would be sustained in Die Walküre was however in little doubt, with Bryn Terfel and Stephanie Blythe reprising their roles as Wotan and Fricka and a terrific casting that would see Deborah Voigt in the role of the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, Eva-Maria Westbroek (recently seen at the Royal Opera House as Anna Nicole) playing Sieglinde, Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund and Hans-Peter König as Hunding.

Die Walküre is structured in such a way that all these roles are of vital importance and any one weak link could bring the whole construction down. Act One depends on a strong bond being developed between Siegmund and Sieglinde, two twins, human Wälsung offspring of Wotan, separated at birth who meet and fall in love in an incestuous relationship that is to produce the important figure of Siegfried; Act Two is largely sustained and dramatically driven by the argument between Wotan and Fricka over Wotan’s meddling in human affairs and the threat to the sanctity of marriage that this incestuous relationship represents; Act Three, and really the opera as a whole, relies on the bond that exists between Wotan and Brünnhilde, his favourite daughter and leader of the Valkyrie, a warrior band of sisters whose task it is to lead heroes who have died in battle to Valhalla, who defies the will of her father to tragic consequences.

Walkure

As fine as the singers all are in these roles, Wagner’s Die Walküre presents tremendous vocal challenges that can expose those unused to its demands, so there were nonetheless potential dangers in each of the music-drama’s key relationships. More used to lyrical Italian tenor roles, Jonas Kaufmann however switched to a different register without too much difficulty, while Eva-Maria Westbroek, who I’ve seen do Puccini, Strauss and Turnage, clearly seems to be best suited to being a Wagner soprano, delivered the finest performance I have ever seen from her to date. Stephanie Blythe succeeded in making her Fricke seem more than a bitter shrew in the Second Act, the audience able to sympathise to some extent with her position, short-reaching and motivated by personal jealousy though it is, while Bryn Terfel’s Wotan at the same time did not seem weak in bowing to her demands, but rather fatalistically yielding to the inevitable fate that has been predicted by Erda at the end of Das Rheingold. The conclusion to Act II that brings all the characters together was therefore every bit as effective and doom-laden as it ought to be.

Where Die Walküre stands or falls however is in the father-daughter relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde, and it was by no means certain that it would work in this production any better than the most recent Bayreuth production (on Blu-ray). Deborah Voigt showed a few wobbles in her earlier Met performances as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, while Bryn Terfel – as terrific a singer and performer as we all know he is – failed to make a significant impression as Wotan in a Rheingold filled with much stronger Wagnerian voices. The real test of his Wotan however is in Die Walküre. It’s an opera I’ve seen him sing before most powerfully back in 2005 (in concert for the BBC Proms), and if anything his singing here was even better and his interpretation of the role much improved. And that is saying something. Deborah Voigt didn’t have the rich middle register that you’d ideally like to hear in the role of Brünnhilde, but she sang the role superbly and her lighter voice actually worked well in establishing her as an impetuous child torn between pleasing her father and incurring his wrath through an act – intervening in the fate of Siegmund – that she believes is necessary.

Walkure

The relationship between father and daughter is critical in dramatic terms and in human terms for the tragedy that unfolds, and Terfel and Voigt get it right, and not just in the Third Act. Act II establishes the nature of their relationship well, with some playful kidding around and punches to the shoulder that other productions would find difficult to countenance as being the actions of dark, serious immortals. The nature of the relationship changes as the drama progresses, and at every stage the two singers seem to be on the same page, Voigt’s sensitive Brünnhilde supporting the depth of feeling that Terfel draws out of Wotan’s terrible dilemma, truly giving him something to agonise over. It’s absolutely wonderful to see.

Also wonderful is watching the Met’s Ring Machine in operation, transforming fluidly in an instant from the dark and imposing forest of the opera’s stormy Vorspeil to Hunding’s lodge, the synchronised projections creating the necessary textures. It’s not overused either in a way that would dominate over the drama or the singing, blending subtly rather to meets the demands of the narrative and the mood, as it should. I would prefer it however if it was a little more integral to the opera and had some more obvious conceptual meaning. In an interview for ‘Opera News’ Robert Lepage makes interesting observations about Time and about the Ring Cycle being not so much a circle as a series of spiralling events, but it’s difficult to grasp this from watching Das Rheingold and Die Walküre alone. The remaining two instalments will prove whether something is made of that necessary conceptual element that will determine whether this is to be a truly great Ring Cycle or not, but even from a spectacle viewpoint and from the quality of the performances so far – not least with James Levine leading a storming Metropolitan orchestra performance – this is shaping up to be a memorable staging of one of the opera’s greatest achievements.