There could be no Bryn Fest (Terfel, that is) without show tunes. But the spectacle of the great Welsh bass-baritone arriving on stage sporting a wrap-around “Madonna” mic is not one I care to repeat in a hurry. He wasn’t alone, of course, but such ugly, obtrusive, devices had no place in The Golden Age of Broadway where the great and the good somehow managed without them – and even in the age of radio head-mics adequate amplification can generally be managed with a high degree of invisibility. This wasn’t the O2 Arena, it was the Royal Festival Hall. So why?
Because audiences now routinely expect – or rather are conditioned to expect – louder and brasher? It wasn’t even as if the techies got the balances right. As Gareth Valentine and the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera pitched into the most iconic of all Broadway Overtures – Jule Styne/ Sondheim’s Gypsy – there was no escaping the “canned” effect of its big bump-and-grind moments and even the ample-voiced Hannah Waddingham was fighting a losing battle in Cole Porter’s “Blow, Gabriel, Blow”. Trumpets ruled, ok?
But sound balances aside, it was a mixed bag of goodies: some things didn’t land, others most certainly did. If he could just loosen up the conversational opening of the great “Soliloquy” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece Carousel then Julian Ovenden’s rendition would be pretty much peerless. It was a show-stealer here. As was Bryn inevitably reaching for the unreachable star in “The Impossible Dream”. And there was the best of all possible finales – the inspiring “Make Our Garden Grow” from Bernstein’s Candide. Has anyone ever written a more thrilling tune?
Well, Puccini wrote one or two and for the Opera Classics bash the following night the WNO Orchestra (and small but perfectly formed Chorus) were happily back as nature intended – that is acoustically. Shapely, incisive, work under Gareth Jones in Verdi’s Overture, I Vespri Siciliani brought on the man himself – all defiance and flaring vowels as Verdi’s Macbeth.
But the voice of the evening – for mellowness, agility, and brilliance above the stave – was unquestionably that of tenor Lawrence Brownlee who managed ten or so top Cs in arias by Donizetti and Rossini. Mezzo Elizabeth DeShong (a late replacement) gave us clean and terrifically articulated runs; soprano Oksana Dyka gave us only firepower – no style, no finesse, no understanding in Puccini’s “Visi d’arte” – though at over six foot she was not about to take any nonsense from Terfel’s Scarpia. Bryn likes the baddies and Boito’s Mefistofele’s wolf-whistles would not have been out of place at Cardiff Arms Park.