Some great singing actors vanish into their characters. At the peak of his powers, the Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel more typically swallows his alive. It happened in spades at the Metropolitan Opera a year ago when he joined the cast of Puccini's "Tosca," late in the run of the new, much-vilified production by Luc Bondy. As Baron Scarpia, the sadistic chief of the Roman police, Mr. Terfel captured the monster's every facet, now in gallantries of silken delicacy, now in the savage bloodlust of a tiger on the attack. Here was a creation worthy of Dickens, Balzac or Dostoevsky.
Close observers noticed that in the climactic Te Deum of the first act, Mr. Terfel left out the production's notorious sexual advances on a Madonna. Whatever Mr. Bondy's feelings might have been (the newcomers to the cast were prepared by assistants), there were no complaints from the paying customers. As the headline on Anthony Tommasini's New York Times review said, boos became bravos.
"People may have thought that we changed a lot," Mr. Terfel said, including his "Tosca" colleagues Patricia Racette in the title role of the tormented diva and Jonas Kaufmann as her libertarian lover. "I don't think we came in with that intention. Certain things I can't stomach. But I tried to be as collegial as possible. When you sign that contract, you're tied to that opera house to try your best. But every different team will play with a different intensity."
Especially when colleagues really form a team, as they did on this occasion. "I couldn't keep my eyes off Kaufmann," Mr. Terfel continued, "not as Scarpia, not as Bryn the singer. That threw me a little, because I was up there enjoying someone else's performance and not even thinking about mine. The same with Pat, a tiny flower of a girl, throwing herself into that role, fighting so hard with me, then having to stand still and project 'Vissi d'arte.' I was looking at myself and thinking, 'How do we do it?' "
An artist who can transcend a dubious production by such force of imagination in the moment would seem to have nothing to fear from a director's miscalculations. Yet in September, Wagner's "Rheingold" told a very different story. Conducted by James Levine and staged by Robert Lepage, "Das Rheingold" was the curtain-raiser for the Met's first new look at Richard Wagner's four-part "Ring des Nibelungen" in a quarter century. Part 2, "Die Walküre," opens on Friday, with the remaining installments, "Siegfried" and "Götterdämmerung," to follow next season. Mr. Terfel, his likeness ubiquitous on season brochures and posters, was cast as Wotan, the two-faced, one-eyed chieftain of the Norse gods.
Six years ago, in a new "Ring" at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Antonio Pappano and directed by Keith Warner, Mr. Terfel's only previous run at Wotan went into the annals as a personal triumph. At the Met, got up in a Marvel Comics breastplate over a dowdy ankle-length skirt, half his face eclipsed by a grimy wig, he looked and sounded out of sorts and off his game.
After the premiere of the London "Walküre," Paul Griffiths filed this report on Mr. Terfel for The New York Times: "He sings, of course, what is written. Yet he seems to be improvising: to be Wotan. Just as, in his physical presence, he makes every gesture and movement come from the character, so his singing — always absorbing, always purposeful — projects the consciousness of the flawed immortal. The more he goes down, the more he rises."
Mr. Terfel, 45, has taken his time with the heavyweight roles of Wagner, yet his flirtation with them goes back to the historic Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 1989. All through adolescence, he had captivated Welsh audiences at traditional song festivals. In Cardiff, at 23, he worked age-appropriate magic with the jaunty aria "Non più andrai" from Mozart's "Nozze di Figaro" and gossamer art songs by Schumann. To the astonishment of a distinguished international jury, he also offered daringly precocious accounts of monologues from Wagner's "Fliegende Holländer" and "Meistersinger von Nürnberg." This is material that teachers tell singers in their 20s or 30s not even to think about.
"The weight of the nation was on my shoulders to be the first Welsh winner of the competition," Mr. Terfel said, drawing a parallel to the high drama golf fans thrilled to that year at a fiercely contested Ryder Cup. "I gave my all."
The American impresario Matthew Epstein, who sat on the Cardiff jury, recounts his first impressions vividly.
"Mozart was Bryn's present, and Wagner was his future," Mr. Epstein said recently in New York. "Or if not Wagner, something in that direction. He always had this big, roaring, fantastic voice of great beauty, with warmth and sweetness to the sound. And he also had this enormous genius — genius — for biting into the words, for painting the text."
The title went to the Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a matinee idol three years older than Mr. Terfel, a choice Mr. Terfel does not fault.
"I wasn't up to the standard of Dmitri's stage persona," he concedes today. "He had everything. Style, interpretation, good looks, the hair." (The rock-star mane had already started to turn silver.) The judges bestowed their vote of confidence in Mr. Terfel in the form of a lieder prize, new that year, for outstanding achievement in the art song. Since then, he has proved himself a master of that medium many times over.
For years to come, his bread and butter in opera was Mozart and more Mozart, especially Figaro, yet Wagner never really went away. If one of his standard audition pieces was Figaro's "Non più andrai", the other was the pensive monologue sung under the blooming lilac by the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs of "Die Meistersinger." "The monologue gave me an opportunity to sing lyrically and in German," Mr. Terfel said. "So people took it for granted that it was a role I thought I could sing. Georg Solti offered it to me with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He promised to do the opera in two evenings, and they did, and I didn't. Now I would give my left arm to sing it with Sir Georg, but sadly he's not with us anymore."
There were early, potentially ruinous, offers for Wotan, too. "Why is everyone so interested in Wotan?" Mr. Terfel asked in his first profile in The Times, published when he was 28, days before his Met debut, as Figaro.
Now, over the last six years, Mr. Terfel has been claiming Wagner as if by birthright with authoritative debuts as the morose Flying Dutchman and Sachs. Not that the work is easy. "For three years, the 'Meistersinger' score was a ball and chain to me," Mr. Terfel said. "It went with me to every city and concert hall." His first Sachs in Cardiff last year won ovations and critical glory.
At the Met, Mr. Lepage is staging the entire "Ring" on an overpowering 45-ton mechanical wonder familiarly known as the Machine. Yet he knows full well that a production lives in its cast. "Whatever concept you come up with, there has to be space for the performer's energy, sensibility, personality, " Mr. Lepage said recently between rehearsals of "Die Walküre." "Of course, Bryn is a great singer, but beyond that he's an amazing performer, a schmoozer, a charmer. He's very physical. He knows that the answers to many questions lie in the music played by the orchestra. He lets the music enter his body. He goes with the flow. You can't corner him."
By Mr. Terfel's account, space is one imperative, but there is also another. "My moving onstage is defined by looking into someone's eyes," he said. "In 'Rheingold,' the people I was singing to were mostly behind and away from me." Wotan's single action sequence in "Das Rheingold, "a vertiginous excursion on the Machine into the bowels of the earth, was executed by a silent stunt double, as house policy dictates. For the rest, Mr. Terfel was pinned to a floorspace of a square foot or two, staring straight at the audience.
But time has not stood still since last September. "I could feel in 'Rheingold' that Bryn wanted to eat up the stage," Mr. Lepage said. "There have been revisions, and 'Die Walküre' will be quite different. The first thing Bryn asked was, 'Do I get to go on the Machine this time?' Already, he's rolling all over the stage, feeling very liberated."
And we still have Wotan's last hurrah, in "Siegfried," to look forward to. In that opera, lightly disguised as the mysterious Wanderer, Wotan watches and kibitzes, anticipating the collapse of his cosmos and refraining as best he can from exercising his power.
Historically, Mr. Terfel's debuts have been bull's-eyes, and the Met "Siegfried" will be his first. By now, maybe he and Mr. Lepage have already found ways to bring out each other's best. On the crisp, bracing live Saturday-afternoon broadcast of "Das Rheingold" early this month, conducted by Fabio Luisi, Mr. Terfel sounded like a man who had found his footing.
Terfel unbound: the Wotan the world has been waiting for. Remember Scarpia.