Bryn Terfel: 'Bad Boys', Royal Festival Hall
Thursday 12 November 2009
Bryn Terfel arrived in the capital armed with countless sneers and as many ways to make mischief. His latest album
Bad Boys – a comprehensive gallery of operatic rogues and villains – was now a tour, and there was a big, glossy, souvenir programme to prove it. But at least this latest participant in the South Bank's "International Voices" series offered value for money – the big Welshman doesn’t short-change us, not even when he's in the guise of that prize quack Dr Dulcamara whose lotions and potions are cheap for a reason.
It was as Dulcamara (he of Donizetti’s "Elixir of Love") that Terfel – his features already fixed in a suitable expression of contempt - arrived on stage to join his touring band – Sinfonia Cymru – a lively youth orchestra culled from outstanding student talent who, under conductor Gareth Jones, provided the evening’s accompaniments and between-number "groutings" like the Ballet Music from Gounod’s Faust and Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre (with a mean violin solo from Cerys Jones). The odd prop or costume accessory distinguished between the evening’s incorrigible baddies but it was the engaging Terfel, as himself, who made the introductions. That's the thing about this man: he's a big international star with the common touch; a peoples' person. And even as you're thinking "isn't this a bit down-market, a bit cheesy?" you are charmed. How many opera stars do you know who could have you singing "Happy Birthday" (to him) minutes after the start of the show?
But then when you are as good as Terfel you can get away with just about anything. You can lead your conductor into the Wolves' Glen on the end of a 12-bore shotgun and immediately undercut the tomfoolery with a storming account of the evil huntsman Caspar's aria "Schweig, Schweig". You can sing "Mack the Knife" in German with an improvised street band and still make every word explicitly understood; and you can sing Gilbert and Sullivan – "When the Night Wind Howls" from Ruddigore – with a clipped English accent to have your countrymen squirming.
I wish Terfel had given us "Epiphany" from Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (as on the album) instead of just the Ballad (with a rather pallid London Welsh Chorale) but his whistling Mefistofele (attention all canines) had him delving so deep into his bass extension as to almost, but not quite, slip from song into growl and Iago's "Credo" from Verdi's Otello made something so toxic of the final word "nulla" ("nothing") as to eradicate once and for all any notion of the hereafter.
He's an artist, this man, but more than that he's a born showman. And when he's bad….
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