Sarah Connolly & Bryn Terfel

L’Italiana in Algeri – Overture
Don Giovanni – Madamina, il catalogo e questo
La clemenza di Tito – Parto, parto; Deh, per questo istante solo
Don Giovanni – Overture
Concert Aria – Io ti lascio, oh cara, addio
Der Fliegende Holländer – Overture; Die Frist ist um
Eugene Onegin – Waltz
None but the lonely heart
La damnation de Faust – D’amour l’ardente flamme
Ruslan and Ludmilla – Overture

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)

Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 17 March, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The Barbican Centre’s “Great Performers” series lives up to the billing. Hopefully the fulfilment of these plans will not be disrupted in the same way as this concert was. One felt sympathy for Head of Music Robert van Leer, who appeared before the start of this concert and referred to the rocky journey he had undergone in putting on a replacement event following the withdrawal of, first, Thomas Hampson and, then, Susan Graham.

The concert, even in its originally planned form, was rather old-fashioned, a bits-and-pieces mixture of operatic excerpts. An evening at the Queen’s Hall in the 1930s came to mind. The unifying element was the BBC Symphony Orchestra, in fine form, under its Chief Conductor Jiří Bělohlávek who brought imaginative attention to detail in the Rossini overture: introducing hairpin dynamics on pizzicatos in the slow introduction, allowing the oboe soloist freedom to phrase with rubato and made exciting, if unwritten, use of accelerando. Then, in the allegro, oboe and piccolo were encouraged to linger on the tails of their second subject statements.

Bryn Terfel was the first of the soloists. The book he had brought with him was used as a prop for what was an operatic performance in all but name. Mischievously teasing the invisible Donna Elvira, this Leporello soon began to enjoy his vicarious status, acting out his master’s approaches to his potential conquests, describing the different female figures vividly with his hands, sometimes addressing himself to Donna Elvira, at others making contact with the audience. This was a memorable souvenir of a role that the singer has presumably now left behind as he has graduated to the Heldenbariton repertoire.

His second solo in was the concert aria of dubious authenticity “Io ti lascio, oh cara, addio”. This was heart-breaking in its consistent expression of regret and vocally enchanting: the daring use of head voice in the pianissimo ends of some of the phrases was the work of a master. How re-assuring to find him not only still able to sing a Mozart miniature with appropriate means but also to interpret it so gracefully. A performance of the Dutchman’s monologue took this reviewer back to the final of “Cardiff Singer of the World” in 1989. When Terfel chose to sing such a punishing piece, at a time when he had yet to make his operatic debut, I silently questioned his judgement. I did not doubt the amplitude of the voice to sing Wagner but feared its surface would become roughened and the singer’s line unsteady. On the evidence of this appearance he has managed to combine dramatic force with the survival of his beauty of tone. This excerpt benefited from another of Terfel’s surviving virtues: his faultless enunciation of the text. The consonantal sounds in the suffering man’s denunciation of his remorseless adversaries were made to convey his furious resentment. The bass-baritone gave full value to the climaxes. He could hardly do less after the powerful performance of the opera’s overture, which had preceded him, with the BBCSO’s brass being given its not-inconsiderable head.

Terfel’s last contribution to the evening was always likely to be an anti-climax and it was: the singer himself seemed unenthusiastic about the miserable arrangement of Tchaikovksy’s setting of Goethe, delivering it with curious neutrality. This was disappointingly bathetic.

His fellow soloist Sarah Connolly did not externalise the feelings of her characters, standing upright and patrician and letting her variations of vocal colour and emphasis convey her feelings. She gave two arias from “La clemenza di Tito”. In ‘Parto, parto’ the virtuoso clarinettist, presumably the orchestra’s principal Richard Hosford, seconded Connolly’s classical, untheatrical style. In Sesto’s appeal for clemency the singer gave every section equal concentration, the recitative-like dialogue with the strings in the second stanza, for example. The mixture of intensity in the sustained music and dexterity in the bravura passages reminded me of Janet Baker, though without the unique emotional tang always present in that great artist’s voice.

The singer’s fine legato was again evident in her one contribution to the concert’s second part, Berlioz’s ‘Romance de Marguerite’; how erotic feeling was contained within mellow tone and smooth phrasing in the second section and how successfully this set off the breathless excitement of the final paragraph! Her equal partner on cor anglais was Max Spiers. At the end of the concert numerous orchestral soloists were rightly singled out.

A recording of the concert is to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3, when the lack of the visual element may diminish the effect of Terfel’s acting. One thing listeners will miss is the fact that all the performers were dressed entirely in black. When the conductor turned to address the orchestra, the only white pieces of clothing visible on the platform were his shirt cuffs!

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