Rambling About Tanglewood: Terfel is a truly bugged Wotan


LENOX -- Ah yes, Bryn Terfel remembers the moment well. When he last sang a recital at Tanglewood, in 2004, a large insect -- "something humungous," he says -- landed at his feet on the lip of the stage.

Did he stomp it?

No, this largely proportioned man carefully lifted the thing up and sent it fluttering away into the night.

"And I still say the best recital hall in the world is the Ozawa Hall in Tanglewood," he declares. It's not just because of the beautiful architecture, but "when they open the doors in the back, of course, they open the floodgates to all the insects to come and browse a singer's technique."

Ha-ha, it's funny. But, he adds more seriously, "I, with my farming background, know the benefits of having insects."

The much-esteemed, much-recorded Welsh bass-baritone, 48, is back at Tanglewood in two of his greatest roles: Wotan and recitalist. He'll reprise his Wagner role in Act III of "Die Walküre" on Saturday with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. (Katarina Dalayman is the Brünnhilde, and Amber Wagner the Sieglinde.)

On Thursday, he gave a recital of German and English songs -- mostly, he says, a retrospective of what he learned from his teachers.

Saturday's conductor, the German Lothar Koenigs, is director of the Welsh National Opera. The Welsh connection is coincidental. In his only appearance under Koenigs in Cardiff, Terfel says, he sang "what, by any yardstick, is the longest role ever written for the bass part of the voice": Hans Sachs in Wagner's "Meistersinger."

Growing up on a Welsh farm and in the Welsh singing tradition, Terfel (pronounced Tehr-vl) sang as a boy and kept right on going through the opera houses and recital halls of the Western world, mixing in show tunes along the way. He sang his first Wotan in 2005. American audiences will remember him from his HD-simulcast appearances as the conflicted god in the Met's recent "Ring" cycles.

Was he put off, as many attendees and critics were, by Robert Lepage's set of moving wooden slats, known (both affectionately and unaffectionately) as "the monster"?

On the contrary, Lepage is a "genius," Terfel said from Munich, where he was singing in "Walküre" before bringing the role to Tanglewood.

"There's no doubting that Mr. Peter Gelb [Met general manager] wants to ruffle one's cage," he said. But "I tried to turn that machine into a problem that Wotan had. So if I was to walk on those planks, it would be with a feeling of

"Sometimes maybe people thought that I was tripping up myself, but I think I tricked that because that was how I wanted him to look, having difficulties walking on those planks. And every footstep, he would end up very uncomfortable."

This Wotan never sang in the revered previous Met production, which was traditional. But, he asks, why can't there be two simultaneous productions in the active repertoire? Both approaches are valid.

Wotan, Terfel says, is a "monumental character to portray on the stage," a six-hour test of stamina for the audience as well as singer. The Tanglewood audience will get to hear him in the scene closest to his heart: the final "Walküre" scene, where Wotan puts Brünnhilde, his warrior-daughter, to sleep on a fire-ringed rock as punishment for her disobedience.

As the father (divorced) of three "beautiful" teenaged sons, Terfel finds this farewell an "incredibly warm, close, fatherly moment."

Sadly, Terfel reports, his Faenol Festival of classical and popular song, formerly held in North Wales in August, remains closed because of poor attendance amid the recession. He still hopes to bring it back.

"We had a glorious nine years," he says.

He's not hurting for lack of work. He has just recorded an album with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with which he performs Christmas concerts and has done Mendelssohn's "Elijah." He keeps going back, he says, because 215 of its 360 members are of Welsh descent and raised their hands to show allegiance.

Coming up are a "Falstaff" in San Francisco in October and a "Sweeney Todd" with the New York Philharmonic in March. But he also wants to take time to immerse himself more deeply in the song literature. In that sense, the recital here was a "bridge into my Valhalla."

He must learn Schubert's "Winterreise," he says. It's such an awe-inspiring work that he hasn't even allowed himself to hear others singers do it.

After Tanglewood, he'll spend time with his sons. First come six safari nights in Kenya, then two weeks in Spain. After that --- who knows? -- he'll work on his golf game, which has become rusty. When he golfed during his last Tanglewood visit, he says, he "got bitten to death" by mosquitoes.

Bugs, however, will remain "safe in my concert hall," he warns. "I might breathe them in but I won't kill them."


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