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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Why Bryn walked out of Wagner’s Ring

By Norman Lebrecht / September 12, 2007

Bryn Terfel’s abrupt withdrawal from Covent Garden’s Ring cycle has split the world into non-operagoers who admire him for putting family ahead of career and the opera community which accuses him of betraying his colleagues and his art by abandoning the biggest show on earth.

The ‘shock and surprise’ voiced by the Royal Opera – exceptionally strong language in a milieu that uses ‘indisposed’ for habitual skivers and ‘unwell’ for the downright mad – has not abated. Although phone calls have been exchanged with the errant Terfel in his country hideaway, his relations with the opera house have not warmed much above the frigid and the sense of shock is entirely genuine.

No-one can recall an instance in any big house when a key player walked out of a Ring for reasons other than artistic principle, vocal crisis or devastating personal tragedy. Star singers are prone to aches, pains and broken hearts, but a Ring is a Ring and its collective, primal ethic is enough to overcome most strep throats, granny funerals and collapsing marriages.

It takes a decade and a team of hundreds to build a new staging of Richard Wagner’s four-night epic, his ‘union of all the arts’. The god-king Wotan, Terfel’s role, appears in three segments, in Rheingold and Walkure, and as the Wanderer in Siegfried. More than anyone, Wotan sets the mood of a Ring.

So when the designated god-king pulls out because his little boy has broken the finger next to his pinky and his wife wants him back home in Wales, fellow-singers, string-players, conductor, director, scene-painters and ticket-sellers have a right to feel let down – the more so when Terfel’s walkout came just one week into a two-month rehearsal period, by the end of which his six year-old kid, who undergoes surgery in Bangor today, will surely once again be catching rugger balls and playing tag.

Terfel’s motives appear to be utterly simple and will evoke instant sympathy in any parent of small children. ‘People expect too much of Bryn sometimes,’ said his wife Lesley, at the weekend. ‘He's more than a singer, he's a husband and a father but opera companies don't want to hear that.’ The tide of public opinion has swayed her way judging by web responses, but I wonder how the same people would feel if Terfel were a four-star general who quit a war, a business chief whose attention to his children cost thousands of jobs, or a football captain who missed a World Cup to attend some infant ailment – because that is the way the opera world now regards the Welsh bass-baritone, as a man who has put relatively minor personal distractions above his supreme public duty.

Undoubtedly, the issue is not as simple as it seems. Terfel, 41, has hungered to play Wagner since he burst forth 18 years ago at the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition as the best Schubertian of a new generation, a voice brushed in velvet and touched with rare tenderness. I remember him telling me over lunch of his long, slow preparations for the glimmer of a Wagner role many years ahead. He worked his way up through Mahler and Strauss and in 1997 sang Wolfram in Tannhauser at the Met. Wagner figured massively in Terfel’s career plan and Covent Garden began casting a Ring around him.

Bearish, bumptious and bell-like in his verbal clarity, he is a commanding presence in stage, the pivot around which a whole production revolves. Backstage, he is regarded as a hard-working colleague, no star treatment required, a good trouper. But there was always an underlying ambivalence in Terfel.

In his student years at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, fresh from a Welsh village, he nurtured a suspicion of big cities, London in particular. Married to his school girlfriend, he took an agent in Cardiff and kept his business close to home. His loyalties were strictly local. When Covent Garden needed him during its rebuilding crisis, Terfel was nowhere to be found. He appeared memorably in Verdi’s Falstaff at the reopening and in segments of the present Ring since 2004, but his sights had since shifted and Terfel was letting it be known that opera needed him now more than he needed opera. He had found another life, and he owed it to Luciano Pavarotti.

The Italian tenor had, over three decades, created an appetite for arias in public arenas – in Roman baths, Vegas casinos and supermarket parking lots. Each outdoor appearance earned him a million dollars, the equivalent of 50 nights at the Met – and without the tiresome need for rehearsal. In his late remarriage to a woman half his age, Big Lucy duetted on stage with pop stars – and Bryn took note.

The Welshman began recording show songs on Deutsche Grammophon and invited the likes of Girls Aloud to his summer festival at Faenol. Instead of pining alone for two months in a London service flat while rehearsing a Ring in Covent Garden, he could delight a football crowd in Cardiff and be home in time to put the boys to bed.

Pavarotti, who insisted he was popularising opera to a mass audience, was actively cutting the cord between opera stars and opera houses, stripping the art of vital assets and turning casting into a game of chance. Terfel, by quitting the Ring, confirmed the selfishness of stars and the worthlessness of contracts. Without the Pavarotti Precedent, there could have been no Bryn Abdication.

The ROH Ring was rescued by the readiness of Sir John Tomlinson to repeat a role he has sung there (and in Bayreuth) many times, but the future of star-studded opera has been put in jeopardy by Terfel’s act of abandonment. Relations between opera houses and great performers have always been delicate. Last week, they turned hostile. Whatever else Terfel achieves in the remainder of his singing career, he will go down as the Wotan who turned his back on Wagner’s Ring.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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