Presto News, 11 September 2015
Jonas Kaufmann sings Puccini
I'm writing this week's newsletter on the way to London for what must be one of the most eagerly-awaited Last Nights of the Proms in recent memory, thanks to a very special guest singer: the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann in his first major appearance at the festival, who will crown the proceedings with his long-awaited 'Nessun dorma'. It just so happens that his new album of Puccini arias, recorded with Antonio Pappano and his Santa Cecilia Orchestra, is released today...

I don't think I can recall another new release which has received quite so much air-time in the Presto office, and not solely from my speakers (a few days after it arrived I was on the verge of rationing one of my colleagues to one track per day, and that only as a treat once deadlines had been met!).

The roughly chronological selection of arias (including music from all of Puccini's operas barring Suor Angelica, for the very good reason that it contains no male roles) is split fairly equally between roles which Kaufmann has made his own over the past decade, and those which he's never sung on stage. Unlike his recent Verdi album, which featured several teasers of things to come, most of the latter are things he's unlikely to take on in a full production – the early operas Le Villi and Edgar get relatively few outings anyway, and few casting-directors would hire him as Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi these days (the role's typically cast with an emerging lightish lyric tenor, though I love the hot-headed, slightly sardonic impetuosity that Kaufmann brings to his swaggering paean to the new, upwardly-mobile Florence).

There are also a couple of roles which he's more or less retired from his stage repertoire: it's good to have his mature takes on Ruggero from La Rondine (one of his breakthrough roles) and Rodolfo (clearly a bit of a player here – his suggestion that he and Mimi skip pre-Christmas drinks with friends in favour of an early night comes off with the wry charm of one who knows he's pushing his luck). But where the disc really scores is in the true spinto roles in his current repertoire: the red-hot love-scene from Manon Lescaut is if anything even more scorching than it was at Covent Garden (the DVD of this production is out next month, incidentally), and Dick Johnson's baleful farewell to life and to Minnie from La fanciulla del West is also one of the stand-outs. And what of 'Nessun dorma', the aria which Kaufmann has regarded as a sort of holy of holies until now? Well, on this evidence Calaf could well be his greatest Puccini role of the lot, and the snapshot we get here left me itching to hear him sing it complete.

Kaufmann may be an artist capable of immense interpretative subtlety, but as with his earlier discs of Verismo and Verdi he never short-changes in terms of the heart-on-sleeve theatricality that so much of this music demands. But this is no broad-brush one-size-fits-all sentimentality, and everything is done in the service of characterisation: the sobs in the voice as Pinkerton bids farewell to his glorified holiday-home in Japan underlines the feckless naval officer's melodramatic self-pity, and the breathless sotto voce as Des Grieux gets smacked by Cupid's arrow in the first track catches the young student's naïve ardour to perfection.

You'd have to try pretty hard, I think, not to enjoy this disc immensely, at least if you modify your memory to erase any traces of Pavarotti (or indeed any of Kaufmann's brighter-voiced contemporaries such as Joseph Calleja and Roberto Alagna) in this repertoire: Puccini's tenor writing is often associated with a rather more 'golden' sound than Kaufmann's essentially coppery one, but once you adjust to that everything's glorious. Roll on tomorrow evening, when Kaufmann will surely share Calaf's triumph.

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