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Bryn Terfel on Wotan, Sachs and The Hay Festival

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday 8 June 2012 | 8:59:00 pm

It isn’t every day that the world’s greatest Wagnerian bass-baritone treats you to tea and toast at his home in the Caernarvon countryside. Bryn Terfel and family – wife Lesley and sons Tomos, Morgan and Deio Sion – live in a comfortably spacious house surrounded by fields and sheep. On the horizon, Snowdon looms through wisps of morning mist. In the middle distance is the farm where Terfel’s parents live.
Wherever he travels, the spirit of his native north Wales goes with him. “Welsh is my mother tongue, and my children speak it,” says Terfel, plonking a jar of home-made marmalade on the table. “If you come and live in this community you’ll work out pretty quickly that it’s beneficial to learn the language, because if you’re going to the pub or a café you need to be a part of the local life.”
Wales prides itself on its heritage of excellent singers, including Geraint Evans, Margaret Price and Robert Tear, yet posterity may decide that Terfel is the finest of them all. Early in his career he was hailed for his Mozartian roles, and he proved himself equally adept in Verdi and Richard Strauss. But fans were waiting for his step up into the daunting vastnesses of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and when he undertook his first performances as Wotan in Das Rheingold in 2004, it was as if the emperor had finally claimed his throne. The thunderous force of his voice coupled with his command of the stage gripped audiences as if nature had suddenly unleashed a new element.
He has just returned from singing Wotan in three cycles of the four-opera Ring des Nibelungen at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and returns to the role in September when the Royal Opera House launches its Ring season. “It was my first complete Ring cycle so it was very exciting,” he says. “I was prepared mentally because I had rehearsed Rheingold, Valkyrie and Siegfried by themselves. Still, you get incredibly involved and engrossed in this mountain-climb, especially when the operas are close together. Sometimes it’s three performances in five days.”
The sheer scale of the work would be challenging enough, even without the added complications of mastering the German texts. “Wagner is something you really have to study. It’s kind of a mental block for me – the German words seem to vanish and the libretto plays games with you, even when you think you know it perfectly. I’ll be going ‘do you pronounce that dair, dee, das, dane…’ You should see my scores, they’re covered with wine and coffee stains, and they’ve been thrown across the room, but it’s all part and parcel of involvement with such a tremendous work. It’s theatre and it’s storytelling. You have to be alive on the stage to be able to convey it.”
ut often, it’s sheer stamina that a singer needs to negotiate Wagner’s gargantuan structures. “It was George Bernard Shaw who said Wagner has sublime moments but terrible half hours,” Terfel nods.
“You might get 40-minute sections like the second act of Valkyrie, when Wotan recalls what happens in Das Rheingold to his daughter. It can go pear-shaped unless you’re totally concentrated and are taking in everything that’s happening around you. In New York, the stage set [by Robert Lepage] was these planks that kept moving, so you had the extra difficulty of moving around the stage.”
Despite his feats in the world’s great opera houses, it’s typical that Terfel should single out his first-ever performance as Hans Sachs in Welsh National Opera’s 2010 production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger as one of his most meaningful accomplishments.
“It was in Cardiff, and the cast was 60 per cent Welsh-speaking. It’s the first time I’ve walked into a rehearsal room speaking my mother tongue, which in itself was a breath of fresh clean air from the Welsh mountains. Singing Hans Sachs is always a milestone, but I was happy to be part of such an achievement, not personally but as a company.”
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