Bryn Terfel sings Schumann, Finzi, and Ibert at the Ravinia Festival, August 2, 2011

I well remember the 1992 Ravinia Festival, when I bought a ticket for the American debut recital of a singer I had read about, a Welsh farmer’s son who was creating a considerable stir in Europe. Although he had made a few recordings, they were not easily accessible in this country, and I came into the concert hall not having heard a single note sung by the then 27 year old Bryn Terfel. The program was simple and serious: Schubert’s Schwanengesang in the first half, and in the second the Op. 39 Liederkreis of Schumann. A huge man with shoulder length blond hair strode on stage followed by his pianist James Levine. The visual effect itself was striking enough—a Viking in full evening dress. I think that my jaw did actually drop at the first line of Liebesbotschaft: “Rauschendes Bächlein so silbern und hell.” The timbre of the voice was absolutely gorgeous and absolutely unique, dark and round and plummy, but with a cut and edge that filled every corner of the theater, the vocal equivalent of Chambertin from a great year. Never had I heard mezza voce singing of such beauty and technical command in these cycles—no question of its being falsetto; at the same time the sheer amplitude of sound in a song like Der Atlas was overpowering. Unique too was the way the voice got around the words. This is a quality that goes beyond German diction (which was perfect), but has to do with how vowels and consonants are formed and their relationship to the rhythmic flow of the music. One of the encores was Schubert’s Litanei, and I recall thinking that there could never have been a more beautiful “ee” vowel in the opening: “Ruh’n in Frieden… .” Welsh songs were among the encores, unknown to the audience, but sung with a melancholy loveliness and unaffected sincerity that had people at the end of the evening on their feet shouting bravo with tears running down their face.

Lohengrin Revived at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

This year’s production of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin was only the second mounted by the Lyric Opera of Chicago in its history. The Ring, Tristan, and Parsifal have been seen multiple times on Wacker Drive since the 1950’s, but what is usually thought to be Wagner’s most accessible opera was not performed until 1980, a pedestrian premiere memorable only for Eva Marton in her prime as Elsa. The psychological complexities of the later works have generally commanded more attention in the post-war musical world, and the fairy-tale Lohengrin inevitably began to seem old-fashioned, a victim of jokes about Slezak and Melchior hauled upstream by swan boats. But Wagner achieved in Lohengrin a purity of lyric expression, both tender and ardent, not found in any of his other compositions, and always a pleasure to encounter again. Perhaps rightly, it was the Italianate Lohengrin of Plácido Domingo in 1984 that drew the serious attention of New York audiences back to the piece, and then Ben Heppner and Deborah Voigt in the controversial 1998 production conceived by Robert Wilson. That staging cut through accumulated theatrical tradition by adopting a highly stylized Kabuki-like form, both in the sets and the singers’ movements. (Ben Heppner has claimed that his vocal problems began with this production and the unnatural singing positions he was forced into.) What Lyric Opera audiences saw in February and March was, as is usual in Chicago, hardly so challenging.

Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach in Late Schubert

Ravinia in the North Shore suburb of Highland Park is the summer home of the Chicago Symphony, although every year the pop side of the Festival seems to encroach a little more on the serious. I wonder if Music Director James Conlon had anything to do with engaging Tom Jones and the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Luckily there are two venues at Ravinia, the large Pavilion programmed for the masses, and the 850 seat Martin Theater, where chamber music and song recitals are performed. Bryn Terfel made his American recital debut in the Martin, and it was a coup this year for Ravinia to secure for the theater Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach’s traversal of the three major song cycles of Schubert in a single week, concerts otherwise heard only in London and Austria. The two artists also gave a public master class coaching Schubert with young singers in the Festival’s Steans Institute training program. It was then a week of sheer delight for lovers of German Lieder, whose average age, sad to report, seemed to hover somewhere around 67.

Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis, Deborah Voigt as Isolde

This season Tristan has returned as a vehicle for Deborah Voigt, who sang her first Salome in the house two years ago. She appears in the production by David Hockney originally conceived for the Los Angeles Opera in 1987. The artist’s creation of child-like fantasy worlds can be effective in an opera like Turandot. But there is no more adult work in the repertoire than Tristan, and Wagner’s drama was not well served by these sets and costumes. The saturated primary colors, the cardboard cut-out swords, the Christmas pageant king – I found all of it a fourth grade distraction from the musical and philosophical seriousness of the piece.

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