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The Master Singer

Royal Albert Hall
07/17/2010 -  
Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Bryn Terfel (Hans Sachs), Brindley Sherratt (Veit Pogner), Geraint Dodd (Kunz Vogelgesang), David Stout (Konrad Nachtigall), Christopher Purves (Sixtus Beckmesser), Simon Thorpe (Fritz Kothner), Rhys Meirion (Balthasar Zorn), Andrew Rees (Ulrich Eisslinger), Stephen Rooke (Augustin Moser), Owen Webb (Hermann Ortel), Paul Hodges (Hans Schwarz), Arwul Huw Morgan (Hans Foltz), Raymond Very (Walther von Stolzing), Andrew Tortoise (David), Amanda Roocroft (Eva), Anna Burford (Magdalena), David Soar (Night Watchman)
Orchestra, Chorus, and Extra Chorus of the Welsh National Opera, Cardiff, Lothar Koenigs (conductor)

Almost exactly three months ago, I saw Bryn Terfel on stage at the Metropolitan Opera as Scarpia, Puccini's snarling, sociopathic sex-obsessed villain. He gave a splendid performance. But his debut as the mastersinger cobbler, Hans Sachs (which I first saw, staged, two weeks ago, at the Wales Millenium Centre in Cardiff, and now again, last night, in a concert performance at the BBC Proms) was in another category altogether. This was a performance, vocally and dramatically (and for Terfel the two are always inextricably linked) which almost takes one beyond the point at which superlatives are adequate.

He gave us a portrait of a humane - and eminently human – Sachs painted lovingly and movingly, using all of his resources as a brilliant lieder singer: crystal-clear enunciation, impeccable phrasing, minute control of dynamics, and his extraordinarily varied palette of vocal colors. In this marathon part, he was in magnificent voice. When required, Terfel pulled out all the stops. But the most eloquent moments (textually and musically) were conveyed with a heart-stoppingly beautiful mezza voce.

His acting was superb as well. I have never seen Terfel so fully inhabit a role. This Sachs had a genial demeanor but was also a creature of dark moods. He was bitter at his lot in life and clearly jealous of Walther. And in the midst of a tight community in which he was rightly celebrated, he was so terribly alone. Terfel made us ache for Sachs – for his profound grief over the loss of his wife and children, and his pain as he rejected Eva's clear romantic overtures and even helped Walther to win her. The only difference I sensed between Terfel's staged and concert performances involved psychological nuance. In Cardiff, his Sachs exhibited more moodiness, even anger. In London, these gave way to a very deep sadness, conveyed by his facial expression and gestures as well as his voice.

But the cobbler's pain was transfigured by his calling (and Terfel's) and by the redemptive power of music. The visual arts can also transfigure suffering into something of beauty. For example there is the extraordinary series of self-portraits by Rembrandt. My favorite of these is at the Frick Museum in New York and I have spent a great deal of time in the presence of that masterpiece. In the time between the performances in Cardiff and London, I went to Amsterdam, where I paid a visit to the Rijksmuseum. There, as I looked at Rembrandt's face – the humanity, the hard-won nobility, the suffering transmuted into beauty – my mind was filled with aural memories of Bryn Terfel's Hans Sachs, heard just six days before.

Sachs is an artist of high principles, who is not rule-bound but is open to new ideas and fresh approaches. He alone sees the potential of Walther. He schemes to outwit and perpetually thwart the plans (romantic and artistic) of Beckmesser, sung in this production by the marvelous Christopher Purves. Terfel was a young, vibrant and vital Sachs with a litheness and grace which surprise given his large frame. But with his ebullient personality, he was also tremendous fun. One of the best comic moments of the evening was the jig he danced around the hapless and helpless Beckmesser.

The rest of the cast performed to a high standard. Christopher Purves showed off his splendid baritone voice and his mastery of comedy – in his gestures, his walk, and his antics, particularly in his scenes with Terfel. In keeping with the general tenor of this production, Beckmesser was nasty but not really evil, more of a buffoon than a villain. Andrew Tortoise was a wonderful David. He's young and clearly someone to watch. He sang with excellent enunciation and phrasing and a lovely clear voice. He also displayed fine comic instincts.

Amanda Roocroft as Eva was lovely and demure, appearing particularly delicate next to Terfel. His protective manner toward her seemed very fitting. She sang with agility and a pure sweet tone. Raymond Very as Walther improved quite a lot as the evening progressed and sang with a refined tone in his prize song. Brindley Sherratt gave us a dignified Pogner with a sonorous but rather small bass voice. He also improved markedly during the performance. Anna Burford's Magdalene was marvelous – sung with a full rich, dark sultry tone. The apprentices sang with vitality and conviction.

The orchestra under WNO Music Director Lothar Koenigs was in fine form, conveying both the majesty and the delicacy of Wagner's music. Their command of the latter was particularly evident in the ethereal quintet. Koenigs was also a sensitive accompanist for the singers. Katherine Thomas, the harpist, provided a wonderfully sprightly “lute” to Beckmesser's musical offerings.

Aside from Terfel's Sachs, the second major highlight of this production was the performance of the chorus. This was the WNO ensemble augmented by additional forces. The chorale at the beginning and the “Wach' auf” near the end were thrilling. One of the most moving moments in an evening filled with such moments occurred when Terfel turned his back to the audience, facing the assembled choir. And they repaid him in full measure, with the greatest gift they could bestow, their voices raised in song, for the honor and the gifts he has given to Wales.

The final words sung by the chorus as Terfel faced them were “Heil dir! Nürnbergs teurem Sachs! Heil! Heil! (Hail to you Nuremberg's Sachs. Hail! Hail!)” And he responded: “Soll vor der Ehr ich bestehn, Sei's mich von euch geliebt zu sehn (If I must submit to honor, let it be that of seeing myself loved by you.)”


Bryn Terfel's next Wagner offering will be his Wotan at the Metropolitan Opera, where he will open the season in Das Rheingold on September 27th. This first installment of the Met's new Ring cycle, directed by Robert Lepage will be broadcast live in HD on October 9, 2010. In the spring, Terfel will return to the Met for two performances of Das Rheingold and seven performances of Die Walküre, the last of which will be broadcast in HD on May 14, 2011.

For further information, visit www.metopera.org.

As for the BBC Proms, the musical feast continues. There are an incredible seventy-four performances between now and the justly famous Last Night on September 11th. For further information, visit www.bbc.co.uk/proms.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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