New Classical Tracks: The Men We Love to Hate

by Julie Amacher
May 11, 2010

Listen New Classical Tracks - 5/12/10 Listen Extended interview with Bryn Terfel
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Bryn Terfel -- Bad Boys (DG 4778091) (Image courtesy of the artist)

At 6'4", Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel is a commanding presence on stage. His physical appearance, combined with his powerful, rich, voice, makes him the perfect bad boy. Terfel has just released a new collection titled "Bad Boys," with Paul Daniel conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. It features some of the characters we love to hate, from the world of opera and the Broadway stage. I asked Terfel, What exactly does it take to be a strong villain?

"Personality, characterization, deviousness, demonic, and most probably in all the pieces I've sung I've tried to create something of those definitions. You can not hide the fact that it's glorious music as well. From Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, to Puccini's Scarpia in 'Tosca,' they all have their wonderful phrases to be sung. Yes, I did have fun in Sweden for a week recording this, something that had been on the back burner for years. I also sang some music theater while I was there as well, including Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess'--'It Ain't Necessarily So.' He always said there's only two kinds of music, good and bad, how true is that?"

There is a lot of really good music on "Bad Boys," sixty percent of which Terfel has sung on stage. One of his favorite characters is Scarpia from Puccini's "Tosca," whom he played recently at the Metropolitan Opera. "Yes, he's an ugly character, isn't he?" Terfel says. "My goodness, he takes over at the scene in the second act, and really traps poor Tosca the diva into his menacing grasp, but of course she wins in the end with those knives hidden all over the stage. He's a wonderful character to portray. He is a misfit malcontent, a chief of police everybody is afraid of." Terfel embodies the sinister personality of Baron Scarpia, who at the end of the first act gloats over the opportunity to seduce the opera star Tosca, while sending her lover to the executioner.

Bryn Terfel earned rave reviews for his role as "Sweeney Todd," at Chicago's Lyric Opera in 2002. He would love to return to that role, and jokes about not being chosen over Johnny Depp to play the "Demon Barber of Fleet Street" in the movie. What was most memorable for Terfel in playing "Sweeney Todd" on stage was getting to work directly with the composer. "It was such an exciting period to actually perform in front of Stephen Sondheim himself and to have those notes, and to have him come into the dressing room and say, 'Look, I'd like you to do this here, and a little bit more color on these words, you do this wrong, please learn that different.' I was flabbergasted, I couldn't say or think. I was so excited to have him in my dressing room, and of course he tore up the notes that he'd written and threw them in the bin. And my eyes went right to that bin. Once he was out of that dressing room, those notes were in my score, still are. And hopefully one day he might write me another piece. I'm a great fan of "Citizen Kane," the movie, and I think he could write a score for that."

Bryn Terfel reprises his role as "Sweeney Todd," on this new release, ranting over a missed opportunity to slit the throat of the man he feels is at the root of all his troubles in the song, "Epiphany."

Fifteen devilish characters are represented on "Bad Boys," each with his own distinctive personality, like the quack doctor Dulcamara from Donizetti's comedy, "The Elixir of Love." "It's his entrance aria that I sang, and he's not a bad boy, but he's questionable as a character. You wouldn't trust him as far as you could throw a stone, and he sells that elixir to everybody who believes that it works, and of course it's cheap Bordeaux, and he always says by the time they work it out I'll be in another country."

Bryn Terfel says there is one character represented on this recording, which he has not yet had the chance to play on stage, "I would love to think that I could sing it, but I'm afraid of it, and that would be Iago, in Verdi's "Otello." I don't think it's my voice. It's a little bit more baritone than I am comfortable with, but he is one that I would love to play."

They say there's no rest for the wicked, and in fact Bryn Terfel has a busy schedule ahead of him. He'll play Wotan in "Das Rheingold." from Wagner's Ring cycle for the first time on an American stage next season at the Metropolitan Opera. This summer he'll take on the biggest challenge of his career when he debuts in the monumental role of Hans Sachs in Wagner's "Die Meistersinger" for the Welsh National Opera. He'll also sing that role this summer at the BBC Proms. A few rare opportunities for one of opera's greatest "Bad Boys" to be the good guy.