The rise and rise of big voice

When it comes to singers, size really does matter: last weekend London audiences were wowed by a rare (and possibly final) appearance of Pavarotti in Tosca, and Bryn Terfel in recital. Roderic Dunnett and Edward Seckerson were there
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The great voice is still undimmed. It was brave of Luciano Pavarotti to return to face his Covent Garden audience in the wake of a family bereavement. He dedicated it to his late mother, Adele, who died even as he rounded off hectic London rehearsals. And he gave her of his best. Ever the professional.

True, the voice is shedding some of its silk – not all a loss. Something of an edge to the tone in Act I did much to establish drama in a visually superb but dramatically flaccid beginning. But Pavarotti can tweak a scene, as he can titillate his Three Tenors devotees, with a tiny flicker. OK, so he sticks to the voice when he's singing. Visually, he is extremely clever. A flick of the paint brush, a dab in the palette, a tiny peck, and he establishes not just Cavaradossi – a canny enough chap, until he falls for Scarpia's grisly ploy – but the Tosca-Mario relationship. True, Carol Vaness's Tosca drew the Act I laughs, which at that stage was more the text than her rather unpromising acting, after a limp offering from ROH old-stager Henry Waddington's sacristan, and a promising, but still only promising, Angelotti from newcomer Graeme Broadbent.

Tosca is fretting about what appears to be her rival's portrait; change the eyes, she wheedles. And Pavarotti does a big dab for the first eye – a laugh – and then a tiny, negligible dab for the second. Comic timing of Hancock quality.

Pavarotti's was a performance laced with small touches, sly wit, wonderful vocal timing. This was terrifically – and always sympathetically to both Puccini's score and singer – managed by the Spanish conductor, Jesus Lopez-Cobos.

Sergei Leiferkus was a Scarpia of almost Molière-esque deviousness. "I don't coo," he boasts, and then does so, relentlessly, as he prepares Tosca's virtual rape. It was subtler and more musical still, almost surging into sarcastic Rosenkavalier as Scarpia weaves his rotten web.

Renzo Mongiardino's sets are wonderful: the church, with its shadowy recesses, is a masterpiece and a joy to the eye. Better still was the sheer stylishness of Act II: everything – chairs, desk and busts glowers amid Mongiardino's Etruscan terracottas – lit with ingenuity, plus wonderful historical and dramatic instincts, by John B Read. And John Cox's 1991 production came alive – the moves as well plotted as they were dreadful in Act I.

Vaness's Tosca comes into her own, too. Always vocally impressive, she rises to give a superb performance, her body almost melting, like a lifeless dummy, to Scarpia's embraces. This was great drama, and her "Vissi d'arte" finally convinced us that this was not just a fine but a great Tosca. Lopez-Cobos held back the Act III opening to almost an adagio; with two such performers, it worked, and both "E lucevan" and the cello-led final farewell brought a gulp to the throat.

RD

Tonight, 18 and 21 Jan (020-7304 4000)

 

Bryn Terfel is about as close as a recital gets to cabaret. Better make that variety. How many international opera stars do you know who'll have the audience singing along with the chorus of "The Hippopotamus Song". "You've been clearing your throats all evening... Now I can't wait to hear you sing!"

I'd love to hear how that goes down in Vienna. The throat-clearing (and coughing – an epidemic of it) had been the object of much gentle chiding during the evening. "I know of several good doctors in London..." he said at one point, mixing reprimand and charm in that inimitable Terfel manner. Audiences love him, queue for him (the Barbican was, as expected, a sell-out). Because they feel privileged. It doesn't matter where he is appearing – a couple of numbers and the size of the venue becomes immaterial. You are "at home" with Bryn. He also happens to be a great singer at the peak of his powers. Is there anything this man cannot do, and do superbly? I don't think so.

Schubert was first. "An Schwager Kronos" to warm up the voice, Chronos the Coachman racing death, Terfel's sonorous declamation carrying advance notice of Wotan summoning his Valkyries. Then "Heidenroslein", where all that power was tapered to an airy wisp of sound – but such a "present", well supported, and beautifully articulated sound, elegant phrasings turning on the proverbial sixpence. The technique is so effortless, you are never, never aware of it. I doubt Terfel is, either. An artlessness conceals the artful because it's all so completely instinctive. "Wandras Nachtlied II" was about as close to vocal stasis as it is possible to get; "Meeres Stille" conveyed the ocean's "glassy surface" in a glassy legato; "Erlkonig", with hair-raising repeated note chords from Terfel's wonderful accompanist Malcolm Martineau, was a chamber opera of three distinct characters. And all of it contained within an imposing but largely still physical frame. Terfel has such composure and such presence.

With Vaughan Williams' Songs of Travel, for me the highlight of the evening, we were around the Terfel fireside. Art songs were suddenly folk songs passed down from person to person. Terfel sings English just as he sings any language – as an extension of speaking. He is, as few singers are, fully in touch with the vernacular. "Wither must I wander?" – the centrepiece of this beautiful cycle – was so intimately, honestly sung as to have each one of us feeling that we were the only listener present. Terfel is never afraid of sentiment, which is why it never cloys. But, my goodness, it moves.

After the interval, we headed Stateside briefly to join Aaron Copland at cradle-side and revivalist meeting. "The Little Horses" – a bedtime story-cum-lullaby – grew lighter and quieter and then barely voiced for fear of waking the little mite; while "At The River" boomed hymn-like across the threshold. Then a premiere. Florida-born Jake Heggie's song cycle on poems by Vachel Lindsay, The Moon is a Mirror. Five larger-than-life characters each projecting their heart's desire on to the moon – and tailor-made for Terfel, who caught their abundant spirit, if not all their words. I liked the bluesy pay-off to the monk's song, and doubtless Bryn's own children will have warmed to his jaunty all-singing, waltzing snowman, for whom the moon is a snowball for all seasons.

What more can I say? The inevitable Welsh medley reminded us that Terfel is a national treasure that we in England get to share. I can't wait for next week's Don Giovanni at Covent Garden.

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