Opera News, September 2016
Henson Keys
Jonas Kaufmann: "An Evening with Puccini"
JONAS KAUFMANN'S Puccini concert at La Scala on June 14, 2015, was one of the most anticipated events in the Italian opera world. The concert was filmed by director Brian Large and subsequently shown in cinemas worldwide. It has now come to home video, and that’s a cause for celebration.

The concert programs music from all phases of Puccini’s career, from his student days (“Preludio Sinfonico”) through arias and orchestral excerpts from Le Villi, Edgar, Manon Lescaut, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Fanciulla del West, Suor Angelica and Turandot. “Preludio Sinfonico” serves as background music while Kaufmann narrates details of Puccini’s life and work, accompanied by rare archival footage of the Maestro. Perhaps most interesting is footage of Puccini’s funeral, almost resembling that of a head of state with massive crowds and plumed horses.

Jochen Rieder, a frequent Kaufmann collaborator, leads the excellent Filarmonica della Scala on this musical journey. Rieder is at his best when conducting along with Kaufmann’s singing; the tenor and conductor are always in sync. He does less well with the orchestral excerpts; the intermezzos from Madama Butterfly and Suor Angelica are paced too slowly and become a series of beautiful moments that lose the music’s sweep and overall arc.

Kaufmann’s singing is miraculous throughout, and this film allows us to see his absolute focus and concentration on the communication of the music. The tenor looks a bit thin, but there’s nothing thin about the power of his beautiful voice, with its burnished, baritonal hints. Kaufmann’s voice has freedom and ease throughout the range, with ringing high notes that soar above the orchestra in full cry. His singing and phrasing make the early arias from Le Villi and Edgar exciting, even though they’re shaky musically. One wonders whether Puccini was hit by lightning between the writing of the unsuccessful Edgar and the suddenly superb Manon Lescaut—a remarkable transformation into a mature composer!

Kaufmann gives us a stylish “Donna non vidi mai,” then offers a passionate and furious version of “Guardate, pazzo son” that actually seems angry rather than desperate—and distinctly un-pazzo. He follows with gorgeous and deeply felt work in Tosca’s familiar “E lucevan le stelle” and “Una parola sola! ...or son sei mesi,” from Fanciulla, both rapturously received by the concert audience. And, of course, the concert finishes with the inevitable “Nessun dorma,” but Kaufmann avoids the “here comes the show-stopper” approach and makes it personal and specific, making clear how he is picturing the Princess as the long night continues. I’ve never heard the aria sung so intimately, with plenty of power left for the triumphant cries of “vincerò” at the climax.

Kaufmann and Rieder save their best work for the five generous encores, beginning with an ardent “Recondita armonia,” from Tosca,and a dark “Ch’ella mi creda libero,” from Fanciulla. Kaufmann’s finest work of the evening is not in a selection by Puccini but in the third encore, Refice’s “Ombra di nube.” This is simply exquisite singing, with quiet dignity and stunning technique. I cannot imagine it better sung. It’s followed by a lovely “Non ti scordar di me” and another crack at “Nessun dorma,” which comes to amusing grief when Kaufmann “goes up” on his lyrics—the audience loved it—but he soon gets back on track and finishes triumphantly.

If this concert has a downside, it’s that there’s too much music from Puccini’s early works. We could have done with one excerpt from Le Villi and Edgar rather than two from each. But the musical pleasures of this DVD outweigh such quibbles.

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