When a singer strides onto the La Scala stage seemingly fearless, takes in every inch of the theatre as though it was home, and their opening notes show that the voice lives up to the promise of the entrance, you know you're in for a good evening. What the audience at La Scala last night didn't know – but probably suspected and hoped for – was that it was going to be a great evening.
Bryn Terfel's enormous presence – both his physical size and his personality – is matched not only by his voice, but also by an artistic intelligence that is captivating. Pins were heard dropping. The audience was enrapt throughout by the intensity of his singing and the and his winning introductions to each group of songs.
The second of his opening four Schumann songs – Widmung – had the new La Scala chief, Alexander Pereira, singing (well, mouthing) along, which is probably a good sign. Before commencing with his Schubert group, he announced that every young singer should sing Schubert, and recounted his time at the Guildhall in London when his teacher, Arthur Reckless – “Reckless by name, but not with voices” – wouldn't let his young student indulge in the opera arias he was longing to sing. Terfel sang English Song for three years. The diet worked, and if he later progressed to more extravagant fare, the fact that he can still take his robust voice done to the softest pianissimi is a testament to his wise teachers.
So after his beautifully enunciated Schubert, where even non-German speakers can pick out each word, he returned to those songs he learned at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the late '80s. John Ireland's Sea Fever is his. Terfel shapes it meticulously but not fussily, and the third line from each verse, which is set to one of the most glorious melodies in all music, held the vastness of the “lonely sea and the sky” in each expansive note. Frederick Keel's Salt-Water Ballads which, like the Ireland songs, are set to verses by John Masefield, continued the sea theme. Never my personal favourites, in Terfel's hands they become newly interesting and he sang the closing Mother Carey as though tearing flesh from a drumstick with his teeth, with rolling-Rs and raised eyebrows: if there was anything to keep you away from Carey and Davey Jones it was this rendition.
The second part of the programme opened with four Roger Quilter songs. Certainly this was Quilter's Greatest Hits – Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Weep You No More, Sad Fountains, Go, Lovely Rose and Fair House of Joy – and why not! They are glorious. Terfel knows these like the back of his hand, and not an expressive note was missed. Before Ibert's Chansons de Don Quichotte, Terfel had another anecdote, but this time from just last week.
He's just finished singing the Dutchman in Vienna where Tom Cruise happens to be filming Mission Impossible 5 at the opera house. Terfel did an amusing pantomime of them meeting, like Gulliver saluting a Lilliputian. Well, Terfel is tall at 6′ 4″ (1.93 m) which makes him tower over the more modest Cruise at 5′ 7″ ( 1.70 m); as Terfel said, “He is so short! Tiny.” He then explained about the creation of Ibert's songs for Chaliapin, before singing them… beautifully.
The concluding songs and arias were not printed in the programme yet were announced as encores in the newspapers; the first time I've seen encores declared in advance, so presumably they were Terfel's intended finish to his recital. He sang from his Bad Boys album, starting with a menacing Moritat von Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife) from The Threepenny Opera, followed by an impressively nasty Canzone del fischio from Boito's Mefistofele, with Terfel doing his own whistles very very loudly! Iago's monologue aria when he explains, or justifies, his evilness – “Vanne! la tua meta già vedo” – “Credo in un Dio crudel” – was suitably, err, evil, with him savouring every nasty word that passed his lips.
The real encores had him singing The Green Eyed Dragon with the 13 Tails, a 1920's ditty made popular by John Charles Thomas (American of Welsh descent) who, recounted Terfel, was once obliged by the audience to rise from his stalls seat and sing it after a performance of Aida. La Scala was treated to more rolled-Rs and wide-eyed naughtiness from the big BT. Ar Hyd y Nos (All Through the Night) was a tender salute to his homeland that the numerous Welsh contingent appreciated even more than the extremely warm scaligero crowd. Due to a misplaced sheet of music, he saluted the audience, (which made no signals of wanting to go home), with an unplanned aria from Das Rheingold, the sort of piece Mr Reckless kept Terfel away from in his early twenties, yet now fits him like a glove.
Bryn Terfel was accompanied by Malcolm Martineau who can be described by that over-used adjective for accompanists: sensitive. He is an extraordinary musician with a precise technique, even when playing opera arias which has many of his colleagues crashing wildly up and down the keyboard, and if you want a meaningful playout or coda to a song, call Martineau! To get a La Scala audience to wait in silence until the fingers are raised from the keys before applauding is no mean feat.
The grumpy old man who before the recital was growling on about not renewing his season ticket for next year, was afterwards enquiring loudly from seemingly everyone around him whether the box-office would have already sold his seat. Recitals like this are exactly what La Scala needs to keep its audiences and attract new ones, not the dilettante who stands behind a music stand for two hours, sings the songs, and communicates nothing. Recitals are tricky: no makeup, no costumes, no scenery. Excellent opera singers don't necessarily make good recital performers: it is an elegant and subtle art. Pereira was there and listened. Hopefully he understood.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.