Classics Today
Review by: Robert Levine
Must-Have Puccini From Kaufmann

Jonas Kaufmann has been around now long enough for any glaring faults to have appeared and been criticized; the best we’ve been able to do is accuse him of crooning occasionally and lacking squillo on top notes. His preparation always seems to be diligent, his use of dynamics, though occasionally exaggerated, is both musical and in character, his phrasing is utterly idiomatic, and the tone handsome and healthy. The problem with a recital such as this, which includes arias from all of Puccini’s operas (except, of course, Suor Angelica), is that we realize that tenor heroes are rarely the most three dimensional folks in any opera, and so a sameness sets in. But Kaufmann is too intelligent to just slide by, and this, with a few minor protests, shows him to be unique among today’s tenors.

He is at his best in Puccini’s more heroic music. As one might guess, his dark-hued tone is rich and full enough for grand statements. The Edgar and Villi excerpts, both beautiful arias, are in the exclamatory Verismo tradition of Giordano and Cilea, and Kaufmann is stunning in both. Luigi’s aria from Il tabarro is similarly thrilling: it’s a very hard, bitter sing that few tenors can cope with, but Kaufmann makes us hang on every word and every note. (He tries his best with Rinuccio’s little aria, singing with great “face” and impeccable diction, and even keeping the vowels pure on the high B-flats, but he sounds as if he could beat the hell out of the whole Donati family, and if I were Schicchi I would keep him away from my daughter at all costs.)

An exquisite “Non piangere, Liu” is pleading and lovely, with great use of sweet singing, and “Nessun dorma”, another recording of which nobody needed, is fine, but it is precisely here that the missing squillo on the ultimate B-natural is noticeable: the first “vincero”, sung with true dramatic thrust, is more interesting. “Recondite armonia” makes little effect, save for the final phrase, which is caressed à la Bergonzi. “Addio, fiorito asil” is properly emotional, but the abrupt concert ending undercuts it. Dick Johnson (in both the 2nd- and 3rd-act arias) is a perfect fit for Kaufmann’s manly tone–probably nobody since Mario del Monaco and Franco Corelli has sounded so “right” in this part.

“O soave fanciulla”, assisted by the timid Kristine Opolais, is pretty, and Kaufmann politely takes the harmonic ending, as written. The little Rondine aria is just as boring on CD as it is live. Opolais is also his partner in the CD’s first four tracks, devoted to excerpts from Manon Lescaut. Her voice is beautiful, her phrasing and feel for the music splendid, but she undersings, refusing to sing out or lean on a note. Enough about her. Kaufmann takes des Grieux through his many moods: a wistful but passionate “Donna non vidi mai”; madly in love, frustrated, weepy, and near hysteria in the second-act duet; angry and dark in “Ah Manon, mi tradisce”; and gripping in his “No, pazzo son”.

The sound is superb, and Antonio Pappano, orchestra, chorus, and assisting singers are excellent. If Pappano gives more room to arias like “Non piangere, Liu”, it helps to make the little aria more effective out of context. This is an almost perfect recital; when it flops, it’s due to a mismatch between singer and repertoire. But if you want to sing all of Puccini’s arias on one CD (except for “Che gelida” and “E lucevan”, which he recorded for Decca), you do what you can. And what he can is pretty magnificent.

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