The last time I saw Bryn Terfel at the Royal Festival Hall he was running around the front of the stalls and threatening to slit all our throats in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Tonight, the demon barber of Fleet Street’s razor put in yet another appearance, as Terfel brought us a splendidly enjoyable concert entitled Bad Boys, which saw the world-famous Welshman vividly portray a wide range of villains from operas and musicals – from the devilish Méphistophélès and the corrupt Baron Scarpia down to Inspector Javert and the drug dealer Sportin’Life from Porgy and Bess. This London concert was the second leg of a UK tour, which ties in with the recent release of the star’s latest album (also entitled Bad Boys) on Deutsche Grammophon.
As seems to be the format with many of Terfel’s solo concerts, the first part is more traditionally operatic in content while the second part ventures into the lighter territory of musicals and operettas. A full choir was employed – the combined forces of the London Welsh Chorale, Canzonetta and The Consort of Voices, together with some lively orchestral playing from the Sinfonia Cymru, under the baton of Gareth Jones.
The concert was therefore very much a game of two halves with sufficient variety of musical styles ensuring there was something in the programme to keep everyone in the audience happy – from opera addicts to Classic FM listeners and to those who just went along to hear one of the finest bass-baritones in the world, regardless of what he was singing.
Kicking off the concert in suitably melodramatic style with Verdi’s overture to La forza del destino, the youthful members of the Sinfonia Cymru displayed some sensitive playing with special mention due to the very precise efforts of the string section. Gareth Jones really brought out the ebb and flow of the piece without ever losing momentum with sensitively detailed attention to tempi and dynamics.
Terfel has always been an artist who knows how to make an entrance and the audience cheered with delight as he sauntered on dressed in full costume as Dulcamara, the quack doctor from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’ amore, wearing a long black cloak with special pockets in which to keep all his dubious remedies. Displaying his wares along the front of the stage, Terfel lined up three glass bottles of different coloured liquids – those of us with sharp eyes in the front of the stalls noticed the brand label “Jones” printed on the front of the bottles, an in-joke referring to Terfel’s actual surname. His rendition of “Udite, udite, o rustici” was brilliantly acted and even more brilliantly sung, with a wonderfully detailed and comic characterisation which really showed off the glorious warm timbre of his voice at its very best. Terfel is a great communicator and he engaged with the audience instantly, getting every word of the Italian text across clearly and with a myriad of facial expressions to bring the character vividly to life – a useful talent, considering the lack of surtitles.
Each musical number was introduced by Terfel himself in a charming and down-to-earth manner, complete with the occasional joke - at one point he even insisted that the entire audience sang him a slightly belated “Happy Birthday”!
Moving on to some proper evil, Terfel continued with two interpretations of the devil – the title role in Boito’s Mefistofele and his French namesake Méphistophélès from Gounod’s Faust. The Boito aria “Son lo spirito che nega” is famous for the demonic whistling at the end of each verse and Terfel told us beforehand that he had been practising this on his Welsh farm and upsetting the dogs! This bass aria lies rather low for him in places but he gave a sinister and charismatic performance with some wonderful verismo touches, really getting into character and producing some piercingly shrill whistles that could probably have been heard across the other side of the Thames.
Three movements of the ballet music from Faust followed, played in a pleasant enough manner by the orchestra – the overall flow unfortunately interrupted by audience applause between movements. Terfel then re-entered to perform Gounod’s rather unsubtle Song of the Golden Calf – “Le veau d’or” which was executed with a great deal of vitality and brio, even though I personally feel that Méphisto’s seductive Act III serenade “Vous qui faites l’endormie” provides far better opportunities to show off the beauty of his voice than this fast and flashy tavern song.
Returning to the stage in a green hunting jacket and threatening the poor conductor with a double-barrelled shotgun, Terfel gave us a highly intelligent rendition of the aria “Schweig, schweig” from Weber’s Der Freischütz with impeccable German diction, the ending of every consonant clearly pronounced.
The only weak link in this otherwise splendid first half was a rather plodding and uninspired rendition of the Soldiers’ Chorus from Faust, here inexplicably performed in a clunky English translation and a highly questionable arrangement that added sopranos and altos to this all-male chorus. Despite the extra reinforcement from the female voices, the overall choral result still sounded lacklustre and stylistically so very wrong.
Closing the first half was Puccini’s superbly dramatic Te Deum from Act I of Tosca, where Terfel once again reprised the role of the corrupt Baron Scarpia - a part which is ideally suited to his voice and which he played so magnificently at Covent Garden this summer. Even without the costume and sets, Terfel was completely in character and his performance was electrifying – his powerful bass-baritone soaring above the choir, orchestra and organ with extraordinarily intense passion and fervent abandon.
The second half of the concert began with the last of the opera arias on the programme – Iago’s twisted creed from Verdi’s Otello “Credo in un dio crudel”. Terfel was pushed to the limit of his comfort zone with this challenging aria but the overall effect was thrilling with a dangerous ‘edge’, particularly the sustained high F sharp which he belted out fearlessly with only a slight hint of strain.
A further orchestral interlude gave us the crowd-pleasing Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns, complete with some fantastically harsh and atmospheric playing from the solo violinist, leader Cerys Jones. Moving onto Sondheim’s dark and blood-thirsty musical, the choir gave us a fairly engaging rendition of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” complete with dodgy East-end accents, which only became truly exciting when Terfel himself stormed onto the stage with a razor in his hand and took over the catchy tune with a murderous glint in his eye.
Staying on the subject of murderers, Terfel’s next party piece
was “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer”, more famously known by its English title “Mack the Knife” from Weill’s Die
Dreigroschenoper, sung in the original German. Reining his Wagnerian voice in, Terfel started the ballad with
some very stylish mezza voce singing and gave a very elegant rendition which stepped up the intensity at
each verse without sounding too heavily operatic.
Terfel confessed to us that he had never sung anything from a Gilbert & Sullivan opera before - which surely was a missed opportunity for a “What, never? Hardly ever!” gag, if ever I saw one. But he made his debut in the genre with Sir Roderic Murgatroyd’s ghostly song “When the night wind howls” from Ruddigore, against a suitably stormy orchestral accompaniment. The piece suited his voice surprisingly well and he sang it with great flair and artistry.
The final orchestral work on the scheduled programme was Mussorgsky’s popular Night on Bare Mountain, which fizzed along nicely without ever really catching fire. Terfel then apologised for stealing a tenor song and launched into a jazzy and sardonic rendition of “It ain’t necessarily so” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which undoubtedly proved extremely popular, even though this particular piece may not be everyone’s cup of tea. His rich voice was wonderfully luxurious and mellow, although the sight of Terfel taking drags on an imaginary spliff and jigging around while affecting a fake patois accent certainly took some getting used to.
The concert ended with two encores - the short (and in this context) slightly pointless orchestral “Rumble” from Bernstein’s West Side Story, and finally Terfel’s empassioned incarnation of Inspector Javert from Les Misérables in the show-stopping “Stars”, which was gloriously sung, even though the voice was starting to tire a little by the end.
All in all it was a wonderfully enjoyable evening with Terfel proving himself a true entertainer, through and through. Following these first two highly successful concerts in Cardiff and London, audiences further north will get the chance to hear Bryn being a “bad boy” when the tour continues to Nottingham, Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle.