Jonas Kaufmann impresses with his finely judged phrasing, psychological acuity and seductive swagger
Presto News, 15th September 2017
Jonas Kaufmann sings French operatic arias
I’ve been waiting for a full programme of French arias from Jonas Kaufmann ever since I heard his stunning Decca debut disc Romantic Arias in 2008, and to my mind L’Opéra (out today on Sony Classical) is the finest recording he’s made since that auspicious beginning a decade ago. We’ve already had one superb recital of French arias from a baritonal tenor this month, Michael Spyres’s Espoir on Opera Rara, and Kaufmann’s counterpart might just as well be called Désespoir (indeed it’s literally the last word on the album). The vast majority of the personalities who spring to life here are either staring despair in the face or desperately trying not to confront it, whether they’re roles which the great German tenor has made his own on stage or characters which he may never sing in future – either because the operas are so rarely staged or because the moment’s passed for him to take them on.

Falling squarely into the latter category are the excerpts from Bizet’s The Pearl-Fishers and Massenet’s Manon, which feature outstanding contributions from Ludovic Tézier and Sonya Yoncheva respectively: it’s hard to imagine even the world’s biggest houses casting a voice of this size in the light lyric role of the lovelorn fisherman Nadir, and though Kaufmann did have considerable on-stage success as Des Grieux (in a chalk-and-cheese pairing with Natalie Dessay, almost ten years ago) he’s become more closely associated with the Chévalier’s heftier incarnation in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.

But it doesn’t matter. The two Manon scenes are so vividly characterised that it feels as if years (and years of considerable emotional turmoil at that) have elapsed between them: if the soft-focus domestic fantasy of ‘En fermant les yeux’ glows with naïve ardour, the Des Grieux of the great Saint-Sulpice scene (in which the feckless Manon bursts in on her abandoned lover at prayer and begs for One More Chance) is a different man: bitter, volatile, and implacable until the very last moment so that the final ‘Je t’aime!’ is wrenched from the guts in a way that suggests not love but a lust that’s still tinged with hatred and resentment. It packs a powerful punch, thanks in no small part to the fragility and sensuality which Yoncheva brings to Manon’s entreaties.

Likewise, the famous Pearl Fishers duet becomes far more than a crowd-pleasing bonbon in the hands of these two great vocal actors, who blend so seamlessly that one person I played it to thought Kaufmann had multi-tracked himself in both roles! At one point in the preceding recitative (included in full) Nadir tells Zurga that they’ll look back on their love for Leila ‘at the age when dreams are fading’, and the maturity of both voices sounds as if they’re doing exactly that here.

But it’s the tantalising glimpses of roles which may never feature in Kaufmann’s stage repertoire that are the real plums of this album for me: Berlioz’s Énee, Meyerbeer’s Vasco de Gama and Rodrigue from Massenet’s Le Cid bear testimony to a voice that’s ageing quite spectacularly, whilst Eléazar’s ‘Rachel, quand du seigneur’ (from Halévy’s rarely-staged La Juive) brings some of the most incredible singing on the disc (which really is saying something).

Crucially, Kaufmann’s not one to gloss over the less attractive aspects of these characters, laying bare the fanaticism of Eléazar, the bullish entitlement of Vasco de Gama as he fantasises about conquering ‘paradise’, and above all the self-deluding machismo in the first section of Énee’s great scene as he struggles to convince himself that he’s Doing The Right Thing by abandoning Didon and Carthage without so much as a goodbye-note on the pillow. I couldn’t suppress a wry smile at the decision to end the album with this crowning jewel, which expresses the qualified remorse of a man faced with letting down the people who’ve feted him as a hero: Kaufmann notoriously withdrew from singing the part at Covent Garden in 2012, and has no plans to take it on in the future. It’s done so brilliantly that I experienced one or two ‘inutiles regrets’ of my own - but how wonderful to have this snapshot of what might have been.

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