He has beguiled us with his Don Giovanni, enchanted us with his Falstaff, and his readings of George Frideric Handel have set the standard for a whole generation of singers. And now Bryn Terfel is exploring the German repertory. At last! He allowed us to enjoy his larger-than-life Jokanaan last year at the MET, taking some of the limelight away from Karita Mattila's striptease Salome. And now, he is trying out the role of Wotan, for the first time, at Covent Garden. The most human of gods is now being interpreted by one of the best loved singers of our generation. The news from London is that he is glorious. Here's what the critics are saying:
Rupert Christiansen writes in the Telegraph that "In his first Wotan, Bryn Terfel fulfils his destiny as an operatic singer. His clarity of projection, firmness of line, richness of tone and nobility of presence all bespeak rare artistry."
Here is the NY Times review by Paul Griffiths:
Bryn Terfel's First Wotan as Horns and Hounds Bay
LONDON, March 6 - The new Covent Garden production of Wagner's "Ring" revolved Saturday night into its second quadrant, with a performance of "Die Walküre" every bit as exciting as the "Rheingold" in December. Once again, the excitement was thoroughly and fundamentally musical, its dual sources in the singing and in the pit, where the company's music director, Antonio Pappano, made the score consistently intense and animated.
When Mr. Pappano was in charge of the Brussels opera, in the 1990's, his performances moved with the certainty that nothing is more dramatic than opening orchestral music to its full richness, detail and flow: its full expressive potential. In this "Walküre" the determination is the same, as is the triumph. Right from the opening storm music, where the main attacks seem to be punching out into the auditorium, there is the thrill of music speaking its utmost.
Mr. Pappano has his musicians fully committed. The brass sections, in particular, bring Wagner's musical onomatopoeia to life: the baying of Hunding's hounds, the snorting of Wotan's war steed, the bitter cosmic laughter. The strings beautifully underscore the tentative burgeoning of desire and recognition in the first act, with phrases caressingly dovetailed into silence. In the final scene, as Brünnhilde quietly starts to turn the mind of her father, Wotan, from fury, the woodwind counterpoint is delicately but firmly in support, with all its effects of color, contour and harmonic surprise on view.
But the essence of Mr. Pappano's work is dynamic, not only in the general briskness of his tempos and the thrust of his forward motion but also in his careful staging of the moments of orchestral outburst. The music following Brünnhilde's change of heart in her interview with Siegmund comes with its terror and colossal joy: the joy that she will now help the hero, the terror that she will be unable to do so. Similarly, in the last act, the interlude before Wotan's closing monologue has rapturous power, which certainly comes from its immediate context as a statement of father-daughter love but also from its place within that 70-minute act, as the arrival at the peak.
Arriving there with Mr. Pappano and the orchestra is Bryn Terfel in the role of Wotan, which he is singing for the first time, outstandingly. This is a god becoming a man, and growing. In the early stages of the second act, he finds places where he can let a phrase run loose a little, green and fresh, before he pulls it tight again. Then, as he is cornered by his wife, Fricka - sternly and strongly portrayed by Rosalind Plowright - he exchanges the easy confidence of command for a force born of awareness and experience. You hear this happening in his slow, soft turns within a trap from which he cannot escape. "I can do what I will" is changing into "I will do what I must."
The "will" is the same. Mr. Terfel's Wotan from this point abandons suavity to gain massively and musically in power. He sings, of course, what is written. Yet he seems to be improvising: to be Wotan. Just as, in his physical presence, he makes every gesture and movement come from the character, so his singing - always absorbing, always purposeful - projects the consciousness of the flawed immortal. The more he goes down, the more he rises.
His rage as he enters in the last act is stark, a rage Wotan is directing at himself, for his powerlessness. At the end he reaches up to magnificent pride. Wotan's farewell to Brünnhilde is also a farewell to his own divinity, yet he goes like a god.
His Brünnhilde, Lisa Gasteen, is human all through. Her voice is rich and rounded, and she uses it to create a character of loveliness and eager sympathies. She does not need to learn from Siegmund and Sieglinde what it is to feel: she knows, and responds. The flame in her voice is warm, not hot, and easily blown by emotional circumstances.
Katarina Dalayman's Sieglinde is conversely complex. At first, as a domestic slave, she is wary, with a thoughtfulness that makes it possible for her to advance gradually, increasing in strength and resilience until she is fully steering the love scene with Siegmund. She later conveys distress and resolve with equal strength, her bleakness as engaged and luminous as her passion.
Jorma Silvasti offers a nicely gentle Siegmund, but one who can rise to the certainty of selfhood in the second act. Stephen Milling is the boorish, malevolent Hunding to the life, physically and in the superb rippling muscles of his singing.
Alas, as in "Rheingold," Keith Warner's direction is weak and sometimes vulgar.
Performances continue through March 28.