Southbank Centre’s Bryn Fest with Bryn Terfel

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  The Golden Age of BroadwayBryn Terfel, Julian Ovenden, Clive Rowe, Hannah Waddingham and Emma Williams with Siân Phillips (speaker), Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Voicelab. Conductor: Gareth Valentine.

An Evening of Opera Classics: Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), Oksana Dyka (soprano), Elizabeth DeShong (mezzo-soprano), Lawrence Brownlee (tenor), Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera. Conductor: Gareth Jones. Royal Festival Hall, London, 4 and 5.7.2012. (JPr)

Photo c Jason Bell/DG and Southbank Centre


A Welsh music festival without tents, rain, mud or portaloos … and certainly no Druids, is it possible? Well certainly it is if it is held on London’s Southbank as part of their Festival of the World. It is the continuation of an event that Bryn Terfel, one of the world’s great bass-baritones, founded 12 years ago near Faenol in North Wales. In the printed programme the Centre’s artistic director welcomes the audience to the four-day event by saying it ‘celebrates the great talent of Bryn Terfel but mostly his love of and commitment to honouring Wales and Welsh culture. Bryn has curated this festival in a way that celebrates his love of many art forms and also highlights our shared belief in the power of communities to express themselves through the arts. The finale of the Wales Choir of the World joining together voices from around the world will be a powerful and exuberant statement of that central idea.’ Very worthy but what two very routine ‘Best of Broadway’ or ‘Opera Classics’ evenings had to do with Welsh culture I am not too sure. The closest we got to Wales, apart from the ancestry of some involved, was how stunningly similar Ukrainian soprano, Oksana Dyka, looked to Charlotte Church!

I first encountered Bryn Terfel when he was doing the usual round of auditions in the late 1980s – needless to say he won the bursary that I had available. He was indisputably a bass–baritone of outstanding potential and that has, by and large, been fulfilled; perhaps it just needs some memorable Wotans at Covent Garden this autumn to be able to write, job done! However I was astonished to hear in his rendition of The Impossible Dream from Man of La Mancha how high his voice now is. Also on the second night, Don Magnifico’s ‘Miei rampolli, miei rampolli femminini’ (My offspring, my females) from Rossini’s La Cenerentola, showed that – if Terfel wasn’t built like a rugby lock forward – he would be the natural successor to Sir Geraint Evans in more buffo roles. He certainly tends to force the bass notes more than he did, but the dramatic phrasing and assured musicality remains firmly intact.

I doubt two very standard evenings of show tunes and opera highlights need much curating and the ‘main man’ spread himself rather thinly across them both. With a top price of £75 for each of these two ‘gala’ nights I wonder what audience they were expecting to attract. On entering the auditorium it was obvious that it was all being filmed for later broadcast and probable release on DVD so this is quite a lot to pay for an elaborate TV show with all the intrusive camera work.

I certainly enjoyed the two concerts very much and don’t want to seem too negative – but it could all have been so much better. The ‘Golden Age of Broadway’ evening was spoilt by dry ice, typically garish lighting and over amplification. Whoever gave the go-ahead for head-mics that made the singers look like call-centre workers should now be full of regrets. From the moment that the irrepressible Gareth Valentine bounced on to the podium to launch the valiant Welsh National Opera orchestra into the most iconic of all Broadway overtures – that from Jule Styne’s Gypsy – it was clear everything would be too loud. Does this type of evening always need microphones, I would have thought not. It also seems to need a narrator – in this case Siân Phillips, guiding us through Broadway’s greatest years of the 1950s and 60s with a script containing more superlatives than Cole Porter’s ‘You’re The Top’ from Anything Goes is supposed to contain. But I certainly agreed with her that ‘the Golden Age musicals work because of their structure and they live on because of their songs’.

The statuesque Hannah Waddingham impressed in Cole Porter’s ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’ and ‘Show Me’ from Learner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady. I never really warmed to Julian Ovenden and certainly his ‘Soliloquy’ from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s wonderful Carousel seemed never-ending, though he made a greater connection with Bernstein and Sondheim’s ‘Maria’ from West Side Story. Emma Williams wore increasing low-cut gowns but her best vocal moment remained her opening ‘A Wonderful Guy’ from South Pacific. Bryn Terfel had already crooned smoothly through Some Enchanted Evening from that musical and later he impassively strove for that unreachable star in ‘The Impossible Dream’, as well as, being centre-stage for an impassioned ensemble ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from Carousel.

My star of the evening was Clive Rowe who excelled in all he did from his melancholic ‘On The Street Where You Live’ from My Fair Lady to a stunning ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat’ as Nicely-Nicely Johnson from Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls. Here he was energetically backed-up by the singers of Voicelab in full rockin’ mode. (What choreography there actually was during the evening was credited to Alistair David.) The evening ended with the inspirational and moving ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ from Bernstein’s Candide and a boisterous – and clearly under-rehearsed – ‘Oklahoma’ from … well guess what?

If a Broadway show tunes evening demands loudspeakers, lots of aquamarine lighting and someone telling you what you are hearing – you get none of this when opera is involved. And even though Jude Kelly spoke some words of greeting she did not even announce the late change in singer (Elizabeth DeShong replacing the indisposed Nino Surguladze) and the small change in the musical programme this had caused. Many of the audience who had their programmes from the previous night were left puzzled when they heard Rossini’s ‘Una voce poco fa’ instead of a Cilea aria. (This caught out several critics as well – but not the author of this review!) On and off the singers came on to sing random ‘greatest hits’ from Verdi, Donizetti, Rossini, Bizet, Puccini, Tchaikovsky, Boito and Mascagni, with the help of WNO’s orchestra and small chorus, conducted by Gareth Jones. The orchestra that had made the music of the musicals sound much better than you would hear it in the theatre were on familiar territory and distinguished themselves with beautiful playing throughout.

Soprano Oksana Dyka was lead soloist of the Ukraine National Opera of Kiev and for those who know their opera this should be all you need to know to imagine how she sang: loud and without any true sense of style and with arms held out wide. Her ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca was especially underwhelming though she improved after the interval, especially in Mascagni’s Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana as befits someone who is establishing a promising international career. Elizabeth DeShong showed herself a Rossinian of some distinction in that ‘Una voce poco fa’ (Il barbiere di Siviglia) and ‘Nacqui all’affanno e al pianto’ (I was born to anguish and tears) from the composer’s La Cenerentola.

Bryn Terfel also introduced his audience to a couple of villains, his familiar Scarpia in the ‘Te Deum’ from Tosca and Mefistofele from the eponymous opera by Arrigo Boito, the latter complete with his own whistles that he surely developed helping round up sheep back home on his parents’ farm in Wales. Here by leading some ‘community whistling’ and after some opening remarks of his own after the interval everything stopped from being so earnest and po-faced. Once again another singer upstaged Bryn – though I doubt he has the ego to worry about this. Lawrence Brownlee’s light, elegant bel canto tenor still has much to learn but fearlessly – if a touch recklessly – he challenged the multiple top Cs needed for ‘Pour mon âme’ from Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment but showed much youthful eloquence and vocal agility elsewhere. This included joining Bryn in the famous duet from Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles that was as good as you would hope to hear and leading the perfectly balanced encore of ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’ (the famous quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto) that provided a fitting finale to two fine – if flawed – evenings at Bryn Fest.

Jim Pritchard

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