Jonas Kaufmann impresses with his finely judged phrasing, psychological acuity and seductive swagger
El Mercurio
Juan Antonio Muñoz H.
The culture of pleasure in the voice of Jonas Kaufmann
It is “L’Opéra” (Sony), a record completely dedicated to the French repertoire, which will surely become another bestseller of the artist.
It is for some reason that this album begins with the scene of the young Montague lover in “Roméo et Juliette” (Gounod). It includes the previous recitative, which begins with the words “L’amour” (Love), and the lyrical speaker then goes on to say that that love has disturbed his whole being. Jonas Kaufmann offers in “L’Opéra” a song to thedeep bond he feels and experiences for the French repertoire, but at the same time, for love, exposed in a myriad of situations, from adolescence to the love of a father (“La Juive”), friendship (Les pêcheurs de perles”), desire (“Les contes d’Hoffmann”), affective doubts and sexual intoxication (“Manon”), tenderness (“Mignon”), charm (“Le Roi d’Ys”), religious reverence (“Le Cid”), disappointment (“Werther” and “Carmen”), the power of Nature (“L’africaine”), finding the ideal (“La damnation de Faust”) and facing the inconvenient mandate of the gods (“Les troyens”).

Just like Roméo waits for the sun to rise, the prelude to the aria turns out to be the anteroom to listen to the voice of the great German tenor: one waits for dawn, in a vigil, as one waits for Kaufmann.

It is amazing that the best current interpreter of the Gallic repertoire should be German. Jonas Kaufmann dominates the language and the way in which it builds the singing. His is not an approximate application, but a deep-rooted one, exact, rigorous, which can be seen throughout his long experience in roles such as Des Grieux, Faust (Gounod and Berlioz), Werther and Don José, and also in his approaches to the mélodie française, with Henri Duparc making the experience of reading Baudelaire, Gautier and Leconte de Lisle even more intense. Listening to Kaufmann singing “L’invitation au voyage” or “La vie antérieure” is having access to greater knowledge.

In “L’Opéra”, what is obvious right from the start is that we are faced with a tenor at the top of his expressive faculties articulating each word with precision, taking care of the way in which the vocals assume different positions and colors, according to the word they inhabit. An artist fully conscious of the music he has before him and who pursues an interpretative purpose. In other words, an artist who knows what his ideal is and who is capable of achieving and materializing it. In Kaufmann’s genius there beats a culture which, to a certain extent, he has assumed as his own: the culture of pleasure, of which France knows so much, and that is applied in this album both to the intellectual taste for singing these works —and this poetry— as well as to what pleasure means, even physical pleasure.

If one listens to his “Ah lève-toi, soleil”, Roméo certainly does not sound like a teenager as one could expect from Alfredo Kraus or Alain Vanzo; Kaufmann does not pretend to make us forget the baritonal seal of his voice but uses and exposes it to delve into the anguish of the character,the tension of waiting, Eros and the amorous belief —lethal and adult— of a soul willing to succumb. It is valuable to have his version, regardless of the fact that it is unlikely that at this point he will ever sing the whole role; something similar happens with Juliette’s waltz, once recorded by Maria Callas, when she had already sung various “Toscas” and “Normas”.

The same thing happens with the duet of “Les pêcheurs de perles”, where his Nadir competes with the low tones of the great Ludovic Tézier as Zurga. Here the seductive power of the voices goes beyond tradition —what is expected, what is usual— to another order so that the listener may enjoy himself without encumbrances. We will certainly not have any Nadir-Kaufmann in the future, but will very probably have Samson-Kaufmann orPelléas-Kaufmann.

Another peculiarity of this record is that it does not get to the arias directly; they all come with their recitative, which provides the context in which each aria develops. These are moments in which the tenor has always something to say, such as the question involving the word “Traduire” in “Werther”, shortly before the character decrees that it is the poet (Ossian) who interprets —translates— him. His new versionof “Pourquoi me réveiller” is more tormented and desperate, almost furious, as if Goethe’s hero could become a dangerous being. Threatening like Don José in his obsession: that is why here the first phrase is the imperative “Je le veux! Carmen, tu m’entendras” while “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée”, embroidered by Kaufmann to the smallest detail, is both a declaration of love and a cathartic self-review.

Wilhelm Meister of “Mignon” (Thomas) connects the tenor, again, with a character from Goethe; this is, in addition, to poetry of German origin. His “Elle ne croyait pas, dans sa candeur naïve” is made for his line of singing and represents the moment of greatest tenderness of thealbum; the aria is built on a color of painful and languishing radiation, while for Mylio in “Vainement, ma bien-aimée” (“Le Roi d’Ys”, Lalo), he chooses lightness and softness, preceded by a confident “Puisqu’on ne peut fléchir…”. One has to listen to him saying “Comme un concert divin ta voix m’a penétre” (Like a divine concert your voice has penetrated me) in the brief fragment chosen from “Les contes d’Hoffmann” (Offenbach), with love needing and provoking physical explanation.

Vasco de Gama brings the astonished contemplation of the natural world with “Pays merveilleux… Ô paradis” (“L’africaine”, Meyerbeer). Then Massenet andhis “Manon” provide two great moments for Kaufmann, on this occasion with the exquisite soprano Sonya Yoncheva. We have Des Grieux in the almost virginal outburst of the beginning, with his sincere and naive confessions, dreaming of the little house in the forest where he will live his love (“En fermant les yeux, je vois là-bas”), and later on the disappointed man, who has become an abbot and once more succumbs, not without pain, to seduction, although he loudly proclaims that finally “(Manon) has left my memory and my heart” (“Toi ! Vous ! N’est-ce plus ma main”). Kaufmann responds to the great reconquering of the woman by giving in to voluptuosity almost with rage. Remarkable.

The recitative “Ah ! tout est bien fini”, of “Le Cid” (Massenet), with the abandonment of the hero’s dreams of glory, precede that prism of interpretative details that is his “Ô souverain, ô juge, ô père”, the contained prayer of Rodrigue, a role he should sing in full once, the same as the role of Éléazar, of “La Juive” (Halévy), of enormous dramatic power, with this (adoptive) father crying over the fate that awaits his daughter. One should note what Kaufmann does with the word “moi” in the last repetition of the phrase “(…) et c’est moi qui te livre au bourreau”. There is no better Faust (Berlioz and once more Goethe) than the German tenor; the inspired “Merci, doux crépuscule” —with the mystery of the natural world lighting up the place, the “secret sanctuary”, where love will be possible— can only be sung by someone who dominates the greatest subtleties of singing.

It all ends with the magnificent scene of Énée from “Les troyens” (Berlioz), “Inutiles regrets!”, which is a tour de force in itself, made so that Jonas Kaufmann may splurge his vocal authority and expressive nobility, tracing all the contours of a hero’s profile that is both lover and warrior and who must give in to the divine requirements, that turn out to be precisely as inhuman as the demanded aria.

Apart from soprano Sonya Yoncheva and baritone Ludovic Tézier, he is accompanied in this label prowess by the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, conducted by Bertrand de Billy, current conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra (RSO Wien).

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