A concert like this could have three possible outcomes: one, frustration at catching just a glimpse of a multitude of operas without the benefit of character or plot development or the embellishment of sumptuous costumes or stage sets; two, inspiration to delve further into the world of opera, nudged by tantalising hints of dramatic tension and a world of emotions; or three, sheer escapism into a soundscape of wonderful music that stands up for itself in its own right without the theatre’s trappings. Judging by the audience’s enthusiastic reaction, the latter probably won the day, but maybe some will also have been moved to explore opera further, propelled by illuminating programme notes.

Bryn Terfel
Bryn Terfel

We were in the capable hands of an almost entirely Welsh company, with Bryn Terfel making a very popular return visit to Birmingham following his participation in Symphony Hall’s 21st anniversary celebrations last year. His leading ladies added colour not only musically but literally, Gwawr Edwards in daffodil yellow, singing of flowers in Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, and Caryl Hughes vivid in a cerise gown that would indeed have been fit for a ball in Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Conductor Gareth Jones visibly enjoyed working with his compatriots.

It was a cleverly constructed programme with a balance of more or less familiar overtures, solo arias and duets in a range of moods – comic, romantic, tragic – interspersed with occasional commentary and anecdotes from Terfel. The orchestra having set the scene with Mozart’s overture from Don Giovanni, a number from the same opera, “Madamina, il catalogo è questo”, got everyone hooked as he playfully brandished a mobile phone, supposedly displaying photos of Don Giovanni’s countless conquests, whilst listing them in his warm and apparently effortless bass-baritone.

The overture to Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro received a lovely lightness of touch from the Manchester Concert Orchestra, followed later by the martial music of Verdi’s Nabucco, with poised brass and elegant woodwind. During some of the evening’s arias, I would have liked to hear them throttle back a bit, as on occasion the all-important words were in danger of being obscured. The percussion was especially effective, however, in the “Toreador Song” from Bizet’s Carmen, into which Terfel coaxed emotion by the capeful. Prefacing a dramatic, menacing and dynamically varied aria from Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman, Terfel reminisced about first singing this at nineteen with Plácido Domingo, and spoke of his great admiration and affection for him. Despite Terfel’s own international success, he confessed to further hero-worship, recalling the spirit of Maria Callas evident at La Scala, where he debuted last year. Apparently as a consequence artists tend to avoid trying to emulate her roles there, so he felt it fortunate that she hadn’t sung Falstaff! Coming hard on the heels of Delibes’ “Flower Duet” from Lakmé, sensitively sung by Edwards and Hughes, Falstaff’s “Ehi! Paggio!... L’onore!” was a suitably lighthearted romp which Terfel well and truly got his teeth into.

More Verdi for “Ella giammai m’amo” from Don Carlo, in which Terfel’s heartfelt outpourings were matched by laments on the principal cello, rightly acknowledged during the applause. Following several helpings of Italian and French, the evening’s one German offering was “O du mein holder Abendstern” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Terfel masterfully inhabiting the role of Wolfram while atmospheric strings shimmered like a shroud over the land.

A foray into the world of musical theatre gave us a few songs in English, including a fabulous “If I were a rich man” from Fiddler on the Roof, although Terfel claimed to have only sung it in Welsh before! Lilting Welsh folksong Cymru Fach rounded off the official programme, Terfel, Edwards and Hughes joining together in exquisite harmony, evoking hills, valleys, emotion and pride. Dearest Wales indeed.

Another language entirely for the ladies’ encore: at least there wasn’t much dialogue to learn for Rossini’s Cats’ Duet, which raised plenty of chuckles and appreciation. Back to Welsh, though, ushered in by charmingly haunting humming, for a trio lullaby Ar Hyd y Nos (“All Through the Night”). Sung in a calmly luscious legato, delicate harmonies interlaced with the beauty of a cor anglais solo, it was just glorious.