Concert review: Brynfest #1 and #2, Royal Festival Hall

For the past two nights we have attended ‘Brynfest’, a celebration of Wales and the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, who has pitched up at London’s Royal Festival Hall for a four-day festival.

Wednesday’s show was entitled ‘The Golden Age of Broadway’ and directed by Sheffield Theatres artistic director and Sondheim specialist Daniel Evans (who as a singer himself has appeared with John Wilson at the BBC Proms). Sian Phillips narrated and introduced the singers, including Bryn himself, Clive Rowe, Hannah Waddingham, Emma Williams, and Julian Ovenden, and the music ranged from Rodgers and Hammerstein (Carousel, South Pacific, Oklahoma, The King and I), Cole Porter (Kiss Me Kate, Anything Goes), to Darion and Leigh (Man of La Mancha), Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls), and Lerner and Loewe (My Fair Lady).

Bryn Terfel has a history of recording musical theatre and has performed in Sweeney Todd, so it is no surprise to see him here, having a good time, just as he did in the Sondheim Prom in 2010. Whether singing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, ‘So In Love’, ‘The Impossible Dream’, or letting his hair down in ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ he certainly provides entertainment value. Clive Rowe recreated his triumph as Nicely Nicely in ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat’ and was a sweetly unusual Freddy in ‘On The Street Where You Live’, while Julian Ovenden impressed in Carousel’s ‘Soliloquy’ – less so as Tony in ‘Maria’ (his voice takes on a Jolson-like quality at times which can be distracting but which would serve him well if the musical play ‘Jolson’ is ever revived!). As for Hannah Waddingham, her ‘Something Wonderful’ was just that, while she tried gamely to better the trumpets in ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’ with a bevy of chorus dancers. Emma Williams was sparky in her duet of ‘You’re the Top’ with Clive Rowe, both making the most of Porter’s clever wordplay.

The choice for official finale, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ from Bernstein’s ‘Candide’ was inspired, inspirational, and beautiful. A well deserved encore of the lead tune from ‘Oklahoma’ left us with smiles on our faces and humming various tunes on the way home.

Thursday saw a change of pace to Bryn’s more usual milieu – the world of opera. In ‘An Evening of Opera Classics’ he teamed with tenor Laurence Brownlee, soprano Oksana Dyka, and mezzo Elizabeth DeShong to present selections from operas ranging from Macbeth to Tosca, Eugene Onegin to Mefistofele. Brownlee is a high tenor with an engaging personality which the audience warmed to, and although Dyka did not move me much with her ‘Vissi d’arte’ (for me, the gold standard of a Tosca is Callas), she had a tuneful if flavourless voice. DeShong – a late replacement as the originally announced singer was ill – has a commanding tone and filled the hall with sound effortlessly.

The best of the night – Terfel’s Scarpia in Tosca aside – was the duet between him and Brownlee in probably my favourite opera duet, ‘Au Fond du Temple Saint’ from ‘The Pearl Fishers’, a beautiful blending of the melody of two human voices. It didn’t disappoint. The Welsh National Opera orchestra and chorus – on both nights – were excellent and worked very hard, and nods must go to conductors Gareth Valentine (Broadway) and Gareth Jones (Opera Classics).

A compilation programme from Brynfest is scheduled to air on S4C at 8pm on the 15th July 2012. Last night we were very aware of the camera directly behind us as the operators were having a conversation throughout. Next time, gentlemen, keep it a bit quieter for those of us who don’t like to hear our Macbeths or Toscas punctuated by nattering …