Jonas Kaufmann impresses with his finely judged phrasing, psychological acuity and seductive swagger
The Times, September 8 2017
Neil Fisher
Classical review: Jonas Kaufmann: L’Opéra
Jonas Kaufmann impresses with his finely judged phrasing, psychological acuity and seductive swagger
Call this unfinished business. Jonas Kaufmann won his spurs as the Royal Opera audience’s favourite tenor when he sang Don José in Carmen in 2006, but he hasn’t sung a French role in London since.
The German tenor withdrew from a run of Berlioz’s Les Troyens in 2012 and plans for him to sing the hero of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Paris Opera last year went similarly awry. With big, heavy roles such as Verdi’s Otello behind him and Wagnerian summits to come (Tristan looms, ominously), it’s unlikely that he will be able to attempt these characters now or revisit other lyrical French parts that he has sung with distinction elsewhere.

So here is, instead, L’Opéra, a grand celebration of 19th-century French opera, with fine support from Kaufmann’s “home” band, Munich’s Bayerisches Staatsorchester, and two other star singers, the baritone Ludovic Tézier and the soprano Sonya Yoncheva. The good news is that it’s probably Kaufmann’s most thoughtful and effective album recital since he moved to Sony in 2013. Oh, and for once the publicity shots don’t make him look like a refugee from the Boden catalogue.
Most of the men here are dreamers and chancers, filled with desire or ambition, refusing to face the hard slap of reality. Here’s Gounod’s Roméo, possibly a little husky and grave to be the Veronese teenager wild on hormones, and there’s Massenet’s Werther, sounding a little weathered, but certainly terminally depressed in his celebrated lament, Pourquoi me réveiller.

In those very lyrical numbers Kaufmann’s voice moves a little more creakily than it used to, and his vocal registers don’t always sound ideally knitted. Yet there should be no carping at his finely judged phrasing, his psychological acuity and, when he hits a sweet spot, sheer seductive swagger. His and Tézier’s searing delivery of the famous duet from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers is as good as any you will hear on record.
For a rarity, by contrast, try the sweet, sad aubade from Lalo’s Le Roi d’Ys or a prayerful declaration of love from Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon. His encounter with Massenet’s manipulative Manon (Yoncheva on luscious form) is frustrating only for its brevity.

As the repertoire gets heavier, so the album builds to a terrific climax. There’s something of Kaufmann’s newly acquired Otello in O Souverain, from Massenet’s Le Cid. A father’s lament from Halevy’s La Juive has an unbridled ferocity. To finish there’s a double whammy of Berlioz. First, the haunted, hunted hero of La Damnation de Faust, and then the pugnacious, self-deluding Aeneas from Les Troyens. What a pity this role was the one that got away.

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