Gwynne Howell

Gwynne Howell


• Born 1938


Tall, warm of voice, and reserved in stage manner, lyric bass Gwynne Howell found his career significantly advanced with his early work with both Benjamin Britten and Georg Solti. Still active in his sixties, Howell pursued twin pathways in opera and concert work, consistently winning good reviews in the latter while achieving his greatest stage successes in roles not requiring a galvanizing stage persona. A fine Wagner singer, he is better suited to such parts as Fasolt, King Marke, and Pogner, rather than to such a hard-edged character as Hunding. In the later stages of his career, his once rock-steady instrument has spread in its upper range, though its timbre remains attractive and soft-grained. During his studies at the Royal Manchester College of Music, Howell was afforded the opportunity to sing Mozart in concert while learning his stagecraft in student performances of Wagner operas. Of the several roles he essayed, Pogner remained in his active repertory and grew into an astutely acted, handsomely sung portrayal. Making his debuts with London's two major companies just two years apart, Howell has continued to sing with both, pursuing at the English National Opera (Sadler's Wells at the time of the singer's first performance in 1968) and the Royal Opera House operas both in the established repertory and new works, many of them premieres. At both houses, first roles were small, though important ones. Soon, Howell's dignified presence and uncommonly beautiful sound were considered too valuable not to engage for principal parts. At Sadler's Wells/English National Opera, he progressed from Monterone to Filippo II in Don Carlo, the protagonist in Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle, Gurnemanz, and even into the bass baritone reaches of Hans Sachs. In 2000, he created the unsavory Croucher in the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's The Silver Tassel with the company. Meanwhile, at Covent Garden, Howell moved from the First Nazarene in Strauss' Salome to Padre Guardiano, Pimen, the Landgraf in Tannhäuser and Richard Taverner in the 1972 world premiere of Maxwell Davies' Taverner. In 1996, Howell participated in another Davies' premiere, The Doctor of Myddfai, this one at the Welsh National Opera. Critics drew parallels between this work, based on a Welsh subject portraying an extended dialogue between the Doctor and a weak-willed Ruler, and the facedown between Filippo and the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi's Don Carlo. As the Ruler, Howell revealed new dramatic purpose, a quality acknowledged in the overwhelmingly favorable reviews. The Financial Times referred to the singer's "noble disillusioned Ruler" while The Western Mail noted, "Welsh bass Gwynne Howell gave a characteristically strong performance as the Ruler who at first rejects the Doctor but seeks his help when inflicted by the terrible disease that has struck down the Myddfai villagers." Although Howell has centered his stage career in London, he has sung also in the major houses of, among other cities, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Munich, Paris, and Geneva. During the course of his long career, he has collaborated with such celebrated conductors as Claudio Abbado, James Levine, Carlos Kleiber, Carlo Maria Giulini, Leonard Bernstein, Riccardo Muti, Pierre Boulez, and Daniel Barenboim. Among Howell's numerous recordings are Britten's English-language edition of Bach's St. John Passion (where he sings Jesus), Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, Rossini's Guillaume Tell, and Handel's Messiah.