OPERA NEWS, April 2008
Critics Choice
Tenor Jonas Kaufmann brings dreamy intimacy but plenty of backbone, to a recital of nineteenth-century arias
“ROMANTIC ARIAS” by Puccini, Bizet, Verdi, Weber, Gounod, et al. Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, Armiliato. Texts and translations. Decca CD 4759966

Jonas Kaufmann brings together several contrasting threads in an impressive debut disc from Decca. The tenor has an old-fashioned approach to repertoire, drawing from different Fachs in the manner of Fritz Wunderlich (one of Kaufmann’s idols), yet bringing a modern and hip acting sensibility to each work. Another contrast Kaufmann reconciles is the vocal sound itself, with a baritonal warmth yet easy top, a dreamy intimacy but with plenty of backbone. Most impressive of all, his unconventional and highly individualized approach revitalizes standard arias with naturalness and emotional truth.

The album title, Romantic Arias, refers not only to the nineteenth-century repertoire but to the dramatic situation of each selection. Many of the characters represented are artistic types (Rodolfo, Cavaradossi, Werther, Faust, Walther von Stolzing), and Kaufmann seems temperamentally drawn to these romantic personalities and eager to lay bare their inner lives. “E lucevan le stelle” has never sounded so intimate and internalized; when Kaufmann ascends softly on “o dolci baci, o languide carezze,” we seem to be inside Cavaradossi’s mind and heart. The climactic high B-flat in voix mixte * that caps Faust’s “Salut, demeure chaste en pure” makes sense as a complement to the solo violin part, whose tone Kaufmann matches expertly.

Even non-artistic characters are caught at their most pensive and reflective: Verdi’s Duke of Mantua is represented by “Parmi veder le lagrime,” rather than by “La donna è mobile” or “Questa o quella,” and Kaufmann brings real vocal elegance to this scene, with gorgeously graded dynamics in the cadenzas. Alfredo’s recitative, aria and cabaletta (from Act II of La Traviata) are also well drawn and paced in a long dramatic line (but why not embellish the repeats?).

Kaufmann’s distinctive voice is instantly appealing, yet rather than making a generic sound, he lets each language influence the color and shading in a sensitive manner. His covered top is especially suited to French repertoire, and the best cuts here are the arias from Carmen, Faust (both Gounod’s and Berlioz’s), Manon and Werther. It’s a pleasure to hear rarities such as Flotow’s ‘Ach, so fromm” (usually heard as “M’appari”), from Martha, and “Durch die Wälder,” from Der Freischütz, in Kaufmann’s native tongue. The other German selection, Walther’s prize song from Die Meistersinger, receives an odd and underplayed interpretation that seems excessively refined for the dramatic situation.

In many singers, soft effects, especially at climactic musical moments, can come across as cheap tricks, but Kaufmann has an honest musical approach that serves the emotional line. It helps that he has actually sung most of these roles in production; he brings an actor’s thought process to these performances, as if each piece were a monologue, complete in itself yet suggesting its place within the entire work. Marco Armiliato and the Prague Philharmonic provide perfect support.
*der Fehler wurde in der Maiausgabe wie folgt korrigiert: CORRECTION: The climactic note in voix mixte that caps Jonas Kaufmann's performance of Faust's "Salut, demeure, chaste et pure" on his Romantic Arias disc is a C, not a B-flat, as stated in Recordings (April).




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