It’s not often singers can necessarily identify with their operatic roles – especially if they’re Wagnerian bass-baritones – but Sir Bryn Terfel is hoping life won’t imitate art when it concerns his latest assignment for The Royal Opera. Don Pasquale, the ageing bachelor in Donizetti’s comic opera, decides to take a much younger wife (to disinherit his nephew). Terfel himself has just returned from honeymoon having married a younger woman, Hannah Stone, the former official harpist of the Prince of Wales. “Fortunately, I don’t have a Doctor Malatesta playing and scheming around me!” Terfel laughs.

Sir Byrn Terfel © Rolex | Johannes Ifkovits
Sir Byrn Terfel
© Rolex | Johannes Ifkovits

I explain that, of all the opera buffa in the standard repertory, I find Don Pasquale the hardest to love. Despite Donizetti’s sparkling melodies and its zinging patter duet, the plot is cruel. When Don Pasquale confides in Dr Malatesta that he wishes to get married, the doctor suggests his sister, “Sofronia”, as a suitable candidate: she is innocent, pretty and subservient… the perfect bride! Little does Pasquale know that it’s all a ruse, a trick to teach him a lesson. As soon as the wedding ring is on her finger, “Sofronia” makes his life a living hell until he relents and allows his nephew to wed “Sofronia” alter-ego, Norina.

Terfel politely disagrees with my thesis, suggesting Pasquale definitely deserves the treatment meted out to him, if only because of him trying to disinherit Ernesto. “I absolutely love the piece,” he enthuses. “It’s a comic masterpiece in Donizetti’s career and it gets produced quite often.” Indeed, Damiano Michieletto’s production has already been seen in Paris earlier this year, where Michele Pertusi took on the title role.

“There are lots of modern takes coming from Paris,” Terfel tells me. “This is a very busy production, so it’s difficult to concentrate on text and the abundance of character that Pasquale has, which obviously comes from the commedia dell’arte tradition of the boisterous figure of Pantalone. But he’s absolutely serious about the marriage he’s about to partake in.”

Sir Bryn Terfel as Don Pasquale © ROH | Gavin Smart
Sir Bryn Terfel as Don Pasquale
© ROH | Gavin Smart

Comedy is a serious business too. Donizetti sets plenty of vocal challenges for his bass-baritone. Terfel identifies the importance of the recitatives, especially from his perspective of having performed a lot of Mozart earlier in his career. “The duet with Ernesto is so beautiful, then there’s that enormous scene in the second act which just flies off the canvas so quickly. The storytelling is very punctuated – that moment where there is the change from Pasquale’s old-fashioned flat to a new modern apartment with all mod-cons because “adorata Sofronia” has taken over everything is key.” Terfel is quick to praise Olga Peretyatko, making her Royal Opera debut. “Oh her Norina! Once that contract is signed, she high-fives Malatesta and everything changes!”

Then there is the Act 3 patter duet between Pasquale and Malatesta. How does he get his tongue around so much text so quickly? “It’s just like learning to say Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch!!” he laughs. “It’s repetition. I asked Roberto de Candia, who’s sung the role many times, for patter tips and he helpfully told me which words to accentuate. And here we have puppets to manipulate on top of all the patter! This Pasquale is very busy, so it’s difficult to show him strutting his enormous self but you have to portray that character without going overboard.”

Sir Bryn Terfel as Falstaff © ROH | Catherine Ashmore (2018)
Sir Bryn Terfel as Falstaff
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore (2018)

Pasquale is played for a fool, but then so is Falstaff – a role Terfel has played many times – where the rest of the cast is out to teach the fat knight a lesson. He demurs when I suggest it’s a role he knows inside out. “I would say that I still have things to learn about Falstaff. You cannot rest on any laurels. I’m doing it for Grange Park Opera in a couple of years so we will have that seven week rehearsal period which will be magnificent because, at the moment, all the Falstaff productions I’ve done are thrown together with about a week’s rehearsal of a production that’s already been played in the house before.”

We discuss ways of learning a new role but also the circumstances surrounding it. “Whenever you take on a new role, that production always seems to stay with you. I remember the first time I sang in Falstaff with Welsh National Opera. I was Ford in Peter Stein’s production to Donald Maxwell’s magnificent Falstaff with a lovely cast including Nuccia Focile and Paul Charles Clarke who’d already done it prior to me. Peter Stein had such insights to those roles, giving us a bible of quotations where certain elements of the opera had been taken from the different Shakespeare plays.

“I walk the corridors here and see photos of singers in certain roles,” he muses. “There’s one of me as Masetto in the Johannes Schaaf production of Don Giovanni. At that time, in 1992, I took every opportunity to go and listen to Claudio Desderi and Thomas Allen working out their scenes and see just how much fun they were having, even with someone like Schaaf shouting in their ears. One has some glorious moments in one’s career – such as spending 40 minutes with Riccardo Muti at the piano going through Figaro’s recitatives – which then stay with you forever.”

Terfel is reflective when asked the greatest lesson he learnt about the profession, citing the time he was asked to sing Antonio in Sir Georg Solti’s tour of Le nozze di Figaro. “I had missed a couple of pages when I was marking up the score,” he admits, “so I went to the rehearsal at Swiss Cottage not knowing one particular recitative and I just couldn’t get it ‘on song’. At the end, Sir Georg came up to me and told me you’d better learn that for tomorrow, otherwise I’ll be looking for somebody else. That really stayed with me, how magnificent this man was, a truly great musician, who could rehearse great singers.”

Mozart hasn’t played any part in his career in recent years. “Don Giovanni was never my role really,” he admits. “I preferred Leporello. I couldn’t really sing Giovanni – that progression of scenes in Act 2 was brutal on my tessitura.” He cites being nervous in his final run of Figaro, knowing it was the right time to let the role go. “I don’t think Wagner takes much from you vocally, but Mozart can sometimes be very difficult – sing Figaro and by the time you reach “Aprite un po'quegli occhi” it’s dangerous; you’re living on that tight wire of whether you’ve really paced yourself well.

“You could say the same about that monologue in Act 2 of Walküre, which is is monumental in itself but has everything – dynamics, range, storytelling. Those moments where you’re talking to Brünnhilde can send shivers down your spine, but you know you have to pace yourself for that declamatory, angry god with his daughters in Act 3 and to that final Farewell scene, which I would portray very differently now because I now have a young daughter myself... but alas, I’ll never be able to throw that into the ring. Vocally I’ve been very careful with Wagner. I haven't sung him very often. I did Tannhäuser once in New York and will never do it again, I’ve done Meistersinger twice and I’ll never do it again.” A farewell to Hans Sachs? “It wasn’t a personal choice, it’s just because your diary is booked so far in advance and Meistersinger doesn’t seem to rear its head very often. I can always sing the monologues out of context in concert.”

Sir Bryn Terfel as Boris Godunov © ROH | Clive Barda (2019)
Sir Bryn Terfel as Boris Godunov
© ROH | Clive Barda (2019)

Terfel’s recent appearances in London – Scarpia and Boris Godunov – have been a far cry from Pasquale. “I think that Boris and Scarpia are pretty close vocally. Many people talk of Boris being for a bass, but having performed it quite often now, it’s very central bass-baritone repertoire. Any of the three basses in Richard Jones’ original production could sing any of those roles; I could sing Varlaam and Ain Anger could sing Boris… as he did when the production then moved to Berlin. Scarpia is in the same category.”

Apart from Falstaff (and Ford), Terfel hasn’t sung any other Verdi roles. “There were roles I was offered quite early in my career. I once sang through Boccanegra with Claudio Abbado and I sang di Luna (Trovatore) through with Giuseppe Sinopoli because they wanted to record them but I just didn’t feel particularly comfortable … and they knew. Although I could sing them, these were roles that just didn’t fit like a glove.” He sang Iago’s Credo from Otello on his “Bad Boys” disc. Was he ever tempted there? “I worked on it with John Fisher but when we came to the end of the role we both said no. That first scene… you could flip those top As on “beva, beva”, and the aria’s fantastic, but it just wasn’t there.”

But if his voice did stretch upwards? Asked which role he’d like to sing were he to wake up and magically discover he was a tenor for the day, Terfel immediately turns the tables on me. Having admitted I’d want to sing Otello and have Mario del Monaco’s trumpet tones, he admits to being a keen follower of Franco Corelli. “I met him once in New York at a Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation event. In the corner there was a guy in a blue tuxedo in a frilly shirt and I asked Paul Plishka who it was. I nearly fainted when he told me because I’d listened to this guy when I was riding the tractor in North Wales! Andrea Chénier was one of his great roles so I think if I did have that single day, it would be as Chénier. Stunning voice.”