Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bryn Terfel, superstar

Tosca -- Metropolitan Opera, 4/20/2010
Racette, Kaufmann, Terfel / Luisi

As I suspected on opening night, opera isn't necessarily that complicated: bring enough vocal star power and a so-so show will ignite -- never mind everything else. Bryn Terfel brings about that much star power all by himself: the cancellation dramas and all that shouldn't, when he actually performs, distract one from the monstrously impressive instrument he has. As Scarpia he just drops all the interesting characterization that his predecessor Gagnidze offered (is Terfel just too decent to really play a man of sociopathic appetite? -- his Don Giovanni was existentially daring, not a lech), which is unfortunate but somehow irrelevant, as sheer force of sound and personality sweeps other considerations away.

On top of that was tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who wasn't much less impressive. At the premiere Marcelo Alvarez was as usual strong and well-characterized, but Kaufmann showed a wild vocal-personal force that brought down the house. His sound is (still) dark and covered, but so mobile and freely expressive despite that... A thrill to hear.

Racette, too deserves credit. I suspect Karita Mattila -- if she'd not gotten injured -- would have done well playing with and off of these two, but Racette actually did succeed, and was in good voice herself. More important than sound here is character: Tosca's mix of grand artifice and self-pity is the classic Puccinian frame into which Racette has always slipped naturally, while Mattila made listeners, at least at the opening, see her contortions in getting there.

Fabio Luisi, filling in for James Levine (also out with a back injury), conducted brilliantly. Luisi is more associated with Verdi and Strauss, and though I'm sure he's done many Toscas, his account sounded a bit like that of a man speaking in a foreign language in which he's been well-schooled: a lot of touches interestingly apart from convention in the initial acts, though not as thoroughly re-imagined in the last as Levine.

I still believe those who booed to glorify the Zeffirelli production misunderstand opera, but now I think maybe it doesn't matter. Design is merely design, but the unamplified human voice remains at the center of things.


  1. I completely agree with everything you said - about the singers, and about the production.

    I didn't think the production was that bad in the fall, but I like it better toned down a bit. And the singers this spring just have it all over the fall group.

    I was there on Tuesday night, and was in heaven for an opera I'm not usually that crazy about. Just shows what a good cast can do - and a good cast, in my book, on stage, has to sing and act. It was a wonderful night at the opera!

    Kathy Boyce

  2. I heard this on the radio in Germany, and it was superb - I don't often listen all the way through without pictures, but the voices here (particularly the men) were brilliant.

    You're right that Terfel doesn't seem to play villains very...villanously, but when he's on form it doesn't seem to matter. The voice usually stops it from being too moustache curling, though I've seen him in recital a couple of times where it was borderline.

    I like Mattila much more than Racette (I've only seen the former live, to be fair), but Racette did a decent job in that company.

    A good night at home with the radio!



Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.