Can you believe that “L’Opera” is tenor Jonas Kaufmann’s first
and only album fully dedicated to French Opera?
I had to
look at his collection of CDs to make sure that statement wasn’t
actually true, but it is. His 2007 album for Decca, “Romantic
Arias” is a mix of different music and does include some of the
big hits from the French repertoire, but his 2017 album, is
effectively the first time he gives such a major part of his
repertoire its own time to shine.
It is truly hard to
believe when you look at Kaufmann’s trajectory. Gounod, Berlioz,
Massenet, Bizet. He has sung major operas from all of these
major composers and in some cases, namely “Werther” and Don José
in “Carmen,” he has become the finest interpreter of his time.
So, was it worth the wait? In a word, yes, as is usually the
case with Kaufmann. And yet in some ways, it is a bit of a
Not Many Surprises
Before the pitchforks come out, let’s put things into a
bit of perspective. Kaufmann is indisputably one of the finest
artists of his generation and might just be the greatest tenor
in quite some time. He has impeccable technique vocally and his
interpretations are always so full of calculated surprises. Few
people can pull off what he can in any given aria or role.
Moreover, he has a wide range of repertoire, conquering some of
the greatest roles, and then some. His discography is
fascinating with the tenor constantly exploring different kinds
of repertoire. How many tenors do you know that have pulled off
a Verdi album, a Wagner album, two dedicated to Schubert, and a
few with more popular Italian songs and operetta? And then
earlier this year, he took out a daring recording of Mahler’s
“Das Lied von der Erde” in which he sang both vocal parts!
What made some of the more “typical” albums, such as the
Verdi one, for example, all the more intriguing was that he
managed to toss in some rather rare passages in there amidst the
more popular hits.
So then to see him put out a French
album that really is lacking in that sense of discovery is
actually a bit of a disappointment from a repertoire standpoint.
We get all the classic French arias from the classic operas,
mixed in with three duets, and then a few other pieces that we
rarely hear from “Le Roy d’Ys” or “Mignon,” and even “Manon (the
best of the batch),” though none of them are quite as exciting
as an extended version of “In Fernem Land” in his Wagner album”
or the epic heroic cry of “Destatevi, o pietre” from “I
Masnadieri” in the Verdi album. I suppose this might be a matter
of taste, of course, and might be the result of coming to expect
more innovation from such an insightful artist.
The Great Stuff
But this gripe aside, the real
question that beckons is whether Kaufmann’s artistry is as great
And on that point, there can be no complaint. In
fact, he is quite irresistible. I listened to this album three
times before writing this review, the fourth coming as these
very words were typed out. The repertoire might not surprise
anyone, but the melodies and Kaufmann’s imaginative
interpretations are impossible to turn away from, demanding to
be listened to again and again.
Take the opener of the
set, “Ah, leve-toi soleil” from Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,”
the darkened timbre we are so used to suddenly softened and made
delicate. It’s still Kaufmann, but his coloring here immediately
makes us feel like we are listening to a young man.
his “Ô Paradis” from “L’Africaine” which comes later in the
album, where Kaufmann kicks things off with a gentle sound
before suddenly transforming the character into something
rougher and more incendiary.
Even the “Roi d’Ys” that I
complained about earlier is wonderfully sung, Kaufmann’s rhythm
precision and brightness of sound providing a major contrast to
other pieces that surround it.
In “Merci, doux
crepuscule!” from “La Damnation de Faust,” we get the tenor at
his most free and rhapsodic, the tempi constantly stretched to
allow him the ability to create a sense of longing, the sound
dipping to sweet whispers. Halfway through the aria, we get the
voice growing in strength on the words “Seigneur,” the longing
externalized more and more. Berlioz’s music is a far cry from
the passionate outbursts of something like “Pourquoi me
reveiller” from Massenet’s“Werther,” but Kaufmann manages to
produce a similarly emotional catharsis with the more subtle
score. Bertrand de Billy’s postlude to this aria is one of the
most fascinating musical moments of the album, the scurrying
strings slowly fading away, out attention fully on them to the
last breath of sound.
The final track of the CD is from
“Les Troyens,” an opera we have yet to hear the tenor perform
fully. Its juxtaposition with the “Damnation” track is quite
revelatory of Berlioz’s contrasting style and Kaufmann pulls out
all the stops that he has been showcasing throughout the album.
His voice uses all of its resources and it ultimately feels like
a virtuosic and fitting ending to the album.
tracks are, unsurprisingly, from operas that he has dominated,
such as “Pourquoi me reveiller” from “Werther” and “La fleur que
tu m’avais jetée” from “Carmen.” He’s recorded these arias
before, but the depth of interpretation here shows his deep
understanding of the character. The former passage from
Massenet’s opera is allowed to start well before the aria
proper, allowing Kaufmann some vocal contrast, his singing
delicate and fragile at first before plunging into the aria with
abandon. It’s exhilarating, to say the least and you can feel
the intensity ramp up throughout with Kaufmann’s gradual
crescendo throughout the aria.
The “Carmen” aria is also
started before the traditional wind solo, allowing the tenor to
start the aria with greater aggression and then gradually go in
the inverse direction from “Pourquoi me reveiller,” the
intensity ramping up but the sound growing gentler all the way
through the climactic B flat, which just hangs as a question.
Sharing the Spotlight
One of the
great things about Kaufmann’s albums is that he is always
willing to let other superstars join in the limelight with him.
He worked with Kristine Opolais in his Puccini album and sang
with Eva-Maria Westbroek in his Verismo showcase, among others.
Here he shares the spotlight with two great operatic
superstars. First up is baritone Ludovic Tézier in the famed
duet from “Les Pêcheurs de perles.” It’s a wonderful mixture of
voices, the two singers’ darker hued timbres matching perfectly
together in a way few other singers can manage. At times, we
might have time distinguishing one from the other, but it helps
in creating this sense of unified friendship, two people losing
one another in a relationship.
As for the two “Manon”
duets shared with Sonya Yoncheva, Kaufmann and the Bulgarian
soprano provide perfect foils to one another. This is
particularly true of their second duet, the famed Saint-Suplice
moment. While the soprano is gentle and alluring in her vocal
portray, Kaufmann is aggressive and virile, slowly growing
gentle until the two let go in a passionate outburst. The first
passage from “Manon” shines a spotlight on the tenor, climaxing
in a rendition of “En fermant les yeux,” the voice sweet and
serene until rising to a disembodied high note.
de Billy and the Bayerisches Staatsoper are also major players,
providing the superstar singer with the ideal partner. As noted,
there are many arias that are framed with orchestral
introductions or postludes that give the conductor and his
ensemble the ample space to shine, and they always do.
yes, this album is incredible, as is usually the case with
anything related to the famous German tenor. The repertoire is
not all that surprising, but its execution is world class and
will demand repeat listenings.