The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra really has the perfect Wagner sound. Their full, vibrant string tone and magnificent pealing brass were fully in evidence in a thrilling rendition of the concert version of the overture from Tannhäuser. Few moments in music are as exciting as the build-up to the Big Tune in this piece, and the orchestra’s performance here was barnstorming yet perfectly accurate. In the first half they also tried their hand at “Ride of the Valkyries”, brass, once again rasping out authoritatively (though as always I miss the warbling sopranos in the orchestral version).

Bryn Terfel
Bryn Terfel

But the big story here was Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, and for the all-Wagner first half he contributed three marvellous selections. The start of the “Evening Star” aria may have been a little gruff, but the voice soon evened out and the shaping of the melody was simply gorgeous. What was perhaps most amazing was his ability to sing softly, without the hint of a croon, but with the sound carrying as clearly as when he belts out at full volume. There is an almost otherworldly, velvet-like softness to the voice at piano that is breathtaking to behold. Wotan’s solos from Das Rheingold and Die Walküre showed off a wide range of expressive abilities. If without the subtlety of some of history’s great Wotans, this god can sneer and rage with the best of them. Even in a concert setting, Terfel was able to bring out tenderness and sorrow for his daughter in Die Walküre’s final scene through vocal means alone. Every word could be heard, even above the full orchestra, which certainly wasn’t holding back. The voice at full volume is large and warm, easily filling the unforgiving acoustics of the ASB Theatre. There was absolutely no hint of a “Bayreuth bark”, and even the highest notes are rich and full without a hint of strain. Making Wotan sound easy is no easy feat!

What a pleasure it was to hear the Devil’s aria from Arrigo Boito’s unjustly neglected opera Mefistofele, even if the very lows are a bit of a stretch for Terfel’s bass-baritone. He oozed malevolence in voice and stage deportment, and topped it all off with an extremely piercing whistle (he noted that when he was practising this piece at his family’s farm this whistle would drive the border collies nuts). The rest of the second half was devoted to musical theatre and folk song. How many singers are able to grasp equally the differing skills needed to master Wagner and Rodgers and Hammerstein? Terfel teased out the main tune of “Oh! what a beautiful morning” the first time round, bending the tempo idiomatically. Each repetition of the nonsense syllables in “If I were a rich man” brought out a new vocal colour, a new articulation in Terfel’s voice – with boisterousness and sorrow alternating, he certainly refreshed what could have been a rather hackneyed affair. Similar expressive virtues were on display in the Weill and Loewe numbers.

Terfel also commands the gift of simplicity; nowhere more so than in the final set of folk songs (“My Little Welsh Home” was particularly lovely). The two encores evinced a similar gift (“Shenandoah” and a Welsh folk tune), and also allowed one to luxuriate in the rich sound of Terfel’s voice. Finally, as an obvious but effective sop to the local audience, the Welsh song morphed into Maori love song Pokarekare ana, which Terfel sang with estimable artistry but probably questionable pronunciation.

Throughout, Tecwyn Evans had a sure hand on the tiller. The orchestra got another chance to shine with accounts of the Oklahoma! overture and New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn’s Aotearoa Overture. Nothing in particular strikes me as particularly New Zealand-like about the latter; in fact, I hear the influence of Vaughan Williams more strongly than anything else. But there was no denying the beauty of the dusky string tones in this work.

Bryn Terfel certainly revealed himself to be a vocal chameleon in this recital, tackling opera, musical theatre and folk song with equal ease. He has a great generosity of both voice and spirit that had the audience positively eating out of his hand (he had the whole auditorium singing along with Molly Malone). Some of us may have wished for a little more “serious” music in the programme, but with Terfel’s artistry evident in such a wide variety of styles it seems to churlish to make such a complaint.

*****