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A vintage voice

A great Wagnerian, John Tomlinson, is appearing in “Wozzek”

Michael Church | November/December 2013

"Voices are like wine," says John Tomlinson. They either go off or mature marvellously with the passage of time. And though his own may now sound weathered, it has acquired an awesome power, as anyone who caught his performance in "Parsifal" at the Royal Albert Hall this summer will attest. This 67-year-old British bass may be gradually saying farewell to the Herculean parts in which he once excelled, but he is still one of the world’s greatest and best-loved Wagnerians. Six years ago, when he stepped in as the Royal Opera’s Wotan after Bryn Terfel’s sudden defection, he not only saved the show but gave himself a new lease of life.

His secret is challenging but simple. Hating what he calls "prima-donna shows" and the pretentions of director’s opera, he treats every work as a piece of theatre and sees himself as a singing actor. This is why Harrison Birtwistle created the title role specifically for him in "The Minotaur", and why, after a miserable recent foray with an aggressively modernist production in Salzburg, he is eagerly getting his teeth into the part of the Doctor in Covent Garden’s "Wozzeck". Berg’s gritty realism should be right up his street. "It’s a wonderful part," Tomlinson says. "I’m going to be the old-fashioned sort of doctor, sadistically making the patient feel minuscule. The way I’m working on it, it’s going to be funny." ~ Michael Church

Wozzeck Royal Opera House, London, from Oct 31st

CLASSICAL AT A GLANCE

The Florentine Straw Hat (Wexford Festival, Oct 29th, Nov 1st). Based on the French farce which inspired René Clair’s celebrated film "An Italian Straw Hat", this comic opera by film composer Nino Rota should have a latter-day Rossinian thrill.

Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI (Cité de la musique, Paris, Nov 26th). The title of this concert by the Catalan early-music guru is "The red book of Montserrat", referring to a collection of medieval chants, but also, poignantly, to Savall’s late muse and wife, Montserrat Figueras.

Falstaff (Met, New York, Dec 6th). A notable opening: the first time James Levine has conducted it at the Met since 2005, and the provocative Robert Carsen is the director.

Frank Zappa: 200 Motels (Southbank, London, Oct 29th). In 1971 this legendary work was cancelled because the lyrics were judged obscene, a charge unlikely to be repeated for this belated British premiere, with its army of musicians and singers, both classical and rock. ~ MC

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