Let Him Entertain You

The fat man sings: Bryn Terfel in Falstaff.

Star turns seldom occur in the opera house these days, for the simple reason that there just aren’t many stars around right now. Bryn Terfel is one, most would agree, and about the only reason to look in on Verdi’s Falstaff at the Metropolitan, a lackluster revival of Franco Zeffirelli’s ancient production, first seen back in 1964. Whether he gives a solo recital or appears in an ensemble opera like Falstaff, Terfel can’t help but take center stage with his outsize performing persona, and his colleagues here give him no competition at all.

For starters, it isn’t often that we hear Falstaff, usually assigned to veteran baritones, sung by a major youthful voice in its prime. Terfel roars out his righteous rage and coos his ludicrous love songs with equal aplomb, making the formidable vocal feats seem almost ridiculously easy. A stage animal by nature, he has also mastered the role’s physical challenges, moving with that self-conscious grace large people often cultivate, while adding many fine comic touches to round out Falstaff’s mercurial character. In the end, though, I found myself admiring a virtuoso performance rather than being moved by it or ever wondering, as the best Falstaffs always make us do, just how funny this rather sad fat man really is. Perhaps that’s because everything comes just too easily to this gifted singer, who sometimes strikes me as more of an entertainer than an artist. We’re definitely watching the Bryn show here, not Verdi’s.

Still, that’s better than having nothing at all to savor. Aside from Camilla Tilling, who floats Nannetta’s music with exquisite tonal purity and acts the role enchantingly, there is not much to enjoy. Dwayne Croft (Ford) has an elegant baritone but without the necessary ringing power for Verdi; Gregory Turay’s lyric tenor is too slender even for Fenton; Marina Mescheriakova is a wan and charmless Alice Ford, while her partners in intrigue, Susanne Mentzer (Meg Page) and Stephanie Blythe (Mrs. Quickly), are also very bland. Conducting this miraculous score with care, James Levine puts every note in its proper place, but without even hinting at the opera’s wit, warmth, or humanity.

Times are tough for the major classical record labels, now more busy reissuing past triumphs than making new discs. Not many musicians these days, even the most super of superstars, are awarded showcase albums when they come to town, but Bryn Terfel is among the happy few. To coincide with his Met appearances as Falstaff, Deutsche Grammophon has released a much more strongly cast performance with Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, and the baritone’s new CD recital, also on DG, is devoted to Wagner. Terfel has been slow to move in that direction, but Wagner has always seemed this burly voice’s ultimate destiny. His first Wotan and Hans Sachs are in the offing a few years from now, but apparently only at London’s Covent Garden – the latest word from this chronically homesick Welshman is that he plans to keep his future appearances in opera mainly in Britain.

Terfel includes most of the big Wagnerian moments for bass-baritone on this disc, sumptuously accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic and Abbado: Wotan’s “Farewell,” the Dutchman’s opening soliloquy, Wolfram’s “Song to the Evening Star,” and the paired monologues of Amfortas and Hans Sachs. And in general, the vocal promise is more than realized. This voice continues to sound firm and substantial, there is no stinting or holding back, the tone has its customary ripe bloom, and each scene is thoughtfully characterized. Connoisseurs may notice that Terfel, at least as recorded here, does not seem to modulate dynamics with quite the ease and purling technique that he has commanded in the past, and I was sorry not to hear more expressive depth in his singing, especially in Amfortas’s two anguished confessions.

But why quibble? This is definitely the real thing, a great voice in peak condition and better than we have heard in this music for ages. May Terfel’s Wagnerian adventures become more frequent, acquire more gravitas, and eventually travel beyond the British Isles.

Two other opera singers widely perceived as genuine stars showed up recently at the Met, but only for a concert: Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna. This married couple has been called everything from opera’s dream team to a marketing gimmick, a latter-day Bonnie and Clyde who make a practice of terrorizing opera managements with their unreasonable demands. Yet they must have something that attracts the fans. Joseph Volpe, the Met’s general manager, who is not known to be a forgiving man, has argued bitterly with them – over repertory, cancellations, what wigs Madame will wear, who directs and designs their productions – and he has shown them the door on at least one occasion. Still, unlike that unfortunate diva from hell, Kathleen Battle, the Alagnas always get a warm welcome back – especially for this concert, since they contributed their fees to the Met’s pension fund.

That was a generous gesture, and so was their program, arias and duets from operas by Bizet, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Giordano, and Puccini, mostly music they have never sung here before. It was a pleasant concert, even if neither Gheorghiu nor Alagna is an arrestingly original singer likely to change the way anyone thinks about the familiar operas they sing. I’m not even entirely convinced that their voices are that compatible – her lean and silvery soprano somehow refuses to blend with his more covered, sluggishly managed tenor. Then, too, I wonder about Gheorghiu, who can spin a lovely legato line in the slow opening section of a bel canto aria but cheats by omitting the florid coloratura finale, which would clearly present her with serious vocal problems. It wasn’t that long ago when a soprano either sang all of Bellini or left him alone.

Well, enough of that. They are a lovely couple, both were on best behavior, and an audience hungry for glamour was grateful to hear them. Opera has always needed its stars, and in 2002, this attractive pair, for all their manufactured veneer, is apparently the best we have.

Metropolitan Opera
Production of the opera by Verdi, conducted by James Levine and starring Bryn Terfel.
Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna
Concert at the Metropolitan Opera.

Photo by Beatriz Schiller.

Let Him Entertain You