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Music Review

Terfel Building on His Superstar Talents

May 18, 2000|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Oversized personality in the modern music scene is not always a good thing. The rare combination of fabulous technique, brilliant musicianship and an indefinable ability to connect with an audience will make any artist tempting fodder for exploitation.

When the bounding, affable Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel made his local debut in 1996, he seemed almost certain bait for the sharks--a great singer and a great entertainer just a little too eager to soak up audience adulation, too ready to overdramatize. Certainly it has worked--his popularity continues to soar. He is one of the biggest tickets in big-ticket opera. It was Terfel who was the star of the Royal Opera production of Verdi's "Falstaff" that opened the newly renovated Covent Garden in London in December. And he is a crossover natural: He was scheduled to sing and record Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" two weeks ago with the New York Philharmonic but canceled because of back surgery.

Terfel's first local appearance in four years packed the Irvine Barclay Theatre Tuesday night; tickets were set at high prices; Terfel attracted a tony crowd, not art-song regulars. Indeed, a continual motif was Terfel's not terribly successful efforts--through jokes, explanations and, finally, outright pleading--to restrain overeager applause until the end of song sets. But there was a reason for the applause.

Terfel walked onstage looking surprisingly fit--trimmed down, elegant and showing no signs of physical discomfort. And he sang spectacularly. As it turns out, Terfel is proving the rarest of superstars. He seems to have outgrown that early tendency toward excessive mannerism and learned to focus his dramatic talent into something profoundly direct and communicative. And, if anything, the recent enforced rest has done him nothing but good vocally.

*

The program itself may not have seemed promising. The first half included a personal selection of Schubert and Schumann songs, no cycles or grand scheme to the groups. After intermission, Terfel kept the challenges slight with English and Welsh songs. But there was no sign that the baritone was taking it easy so soon after surgery, let alone coasting.

There will probably always be controversy between just how dramatically art songs should be sung. A booming operatic voice can trample subtle poetic sentiment. But there is often, in the German lied tradition, a strongly implied poetic narrative. Different narrative voices may even appear in the same song, and certainly do from song to song. Terfel is an inspired mimic, and he made a great deal of these voices. He loves heroics and couldn't have been happier to take on the mantle of the mythological Atlas in Schubert's "Der Atlas." He has a voice and bearing made for the military; one could see him leading the lads into battle after hearing his patriotic performance of Schumann's "The Two Grenadiers."

But Terfel also has a finely developed sense of dramatic irony, which lies at the heart of much 19th century German music and poetry. He has a big voice that can become very small, a lusty manner that can turn instantly tender and lyrical. Song recitals are usually at least a little stiff, but he stands and sings with a naturalness that can't be entirely taught. And Tuesday he interacted with his superb pianist, Malcolm Martineau, like a chamber musician.

The English songs included ballads by John Ireland, five songs from George Butterworth's cycle "A Shropshire Lad" (which was left out of the printed program), three numbers that had been favorites of his teacher in London and traditional Welsh songs, including the lullaby "Suo Gan." These are not songs that easily leave the British Isles. But Terfel, in direct contact with lyric and tune, made them a pleasure to hear.

The encores were light and special, the best being a Flanders and Swan novelty number, "The Gas Man Cometh," that proved Terfel as much an heir to the British music hall tradition as he is the great artist who just seems to keep getting better.

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