New York Times, May 31, 2010
Scaling Wagnerian Mountaintops
A SURPRISE highlight of the Metropolitan Opera season was the double triumph of the charismatic 41-year-old German tenor Jonas Kaufmann in touchstone roles of the Italian and French repertories. In April major cast changes came to two new productions that had been introduced in the fall: Luc Bondy’s “Tosca,” with Mr. Kaufmann taking over as an impassioned Cavaradossi, and Richard Eyre’s “Carmen,” with Mr. Kaufmann as a vocally elegant but wildly volatile Don José.

Two new Decca recordings present Mr. Kaufmann in a wide range of German repertory. On one he gives stylish and supremely musical accounts of arias from operas by Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Wagner, with Claudio Abbado conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (478 146-3). On the other he proves his skills at lieder in Schubert’s song cycle “Die Schöne Müllerin,” with the pianist Helmut Deutsch (478 152-8).

The breadth of Mr. Kaufmann’s repertory is both a defining quality of his artistry and something of a concern to his fans. Next season he sings Siegmund in the Met’s new Robert Lepage production of Wagner’s “Walküre,” a leap from Don José and Cavaradossi. Some great tenors have ably navigated these distinctive vocal camps, most notably, in recent times, Plácido Domingo, an especially memorable Siegmund and Parsifal.

Still, Mr. Domingo’s evolution into a Wagner tenor was accomplished by sheer determination. From the baritonal colorings, unforced power and lyrical elegance of Mr. Kaufmann’s Wagner singing on the new recording, he seems born to the style. As he increasingly edges into this heavier repertory, will he be able to keep the lighter French and the muscular Italian roles in his voice as well? Whatever the future holds, it is gratifying to have these excellent new recordings.

The aria disc begins with a glowing account of “In Fernem Land” from Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” in which the title character, a mysterious young knight, reveals his identity and tells of his life at the Temple of the Holy Grail. Mr. Kaufmann first sang this role onstage in Munich in 2009, and his singing here is rhapsodic and beguiling, from the soft phrases delivered with a slightly covered, earthy tone, to the outbursts in full, burnished voice.

But it is the shape and quiet intensity of Mr. Kaufmann’s phrasing that make his singing so distinguished here. You hang on every word as he relates the story. He is just as gripping in “Mein lieber Schwan!” at the mystical end of the opera. The excerpts from Wagner’s “Parsifal” are also distinguished. And his engrossing “Winterstürme” from “Die Walküre” bodes well for his Siegmund next spring at the Met.

Yet even on this album of German arias Mr. Kaufmann takes on boldly diverse repertory. In Tamino’s aria “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” from Mozart’s “Zauberflöte” and Tamino’s encounter with the Speaker (the bass-baritone Michael Volle) at the temple of wisdom, an exchange delivered in stretches of dramatic recitative and arioso flights, Mr. Kaufmann proves a stylish Mozart singer. And the heft of his singing enhances the music’s intensity. He balances wrenching despair and nobility in the prisoner Florestan’s “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!” from Beethoven’s “Fidelio.”


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