Bay Area Reporter, 05/26/2011
by Tim Pfaff
17 reasons why

"All singers love to honk," one of the greatest singers of the last century once told me. If you knew who she was (I'm not telling; she's still with us), "honk" is one of the last words you'd use to describe her voice or artistry – but her point was that all singers like to make a big, juicy sound from time to time. Opera-goers who claim that they don't go for the money notes are either dodging the issue or have pledged some kinky allegiance to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf that overlooks the fact that the most famous thing Schwarzkopf ever did was to interpolate the high C's in Kirsten Flagstad's justly famous studio recording of Tristan und Isolde, those C's the very definition of honk.

The least-best-kept secret in opera is that tenor Jonas Kaufmann has emerged the most important new singer of our day, and a complete artist in the bargain. The subtleties of his art are such that the big notes are on you before you know it – and often recede into a hush with comparable stealth – all without his once violating the score, at least in any way you'd mind. But if you want to know what all the fuss is about, you have to hear him honk, and there's nowhere better to do that than his latest CD, Verismo (Decca). It should come with a warning label about its addictive qualities.

When Kaufmann sings the 17 arias on Verismo, ideally partnered by conductor Antonio Pappano and his Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, they seem like the most important pieces of vocal music ever written. They're among a growing series of Kaufmann performances – the most recent being the livestream of a breath-taking Mahler Das Lied von der Erde from Berlin on the centenary of Mahler's death on May 18, with Claudio Abbado conducting what may have been his first public Das Lied; it's in the Berlin Philharmonic's Digital Concert Hall at – that leave me feeling, "Now I'm good to go."

Music-making as subtle and refined as Kaufmann's makes it a constant, renewable jolt of pleasure when he does let it rip. The sheer candlepower of a voice as virile as his is in some elemental way shocking. Even so, you never have the sense of his trying to get away with something just because he has the voice and looks to permit him to get away with anything. His trademark, succulent pianissimi are as much in evidence here as the money notes are, and the consistent marvel is the way his personal submission to both music and role fuses it all into such a protean, vibrant, mercurial whole.

It's total control in the interest of total spontaneity. Once Kaufmann gets purchase on a note, wherever he goes with it, loud or soft, bright or dusky, he doesn't swell or color it so much as he just opens that note up, finds what's there, and follows where it leads. The art is learned, the instincts unteachable. All that listeners are likely to know is that their molecules are recombining in wondrous if previously unimagined ways.

If there were an International Union of Tenors, it would have to ban this CD. Other tenors, after all, have to sing Turiddu, Canio, Chenier, and Enzo just to meet the international opera-house quotas, and who would want to in the long shadow of these resplendent, gripping performances?

That said, the real stunners on the CD are unlikely to get stagings anytime soon. First up is Romeo's tomb-scene monologue from Riccardo Zandonai's Giulietta e Romeo, and you immediately see why it's Kaufmann's own desert-island piece. "Federico's Lament" from Francesco Cilea's L'Arlesiana opens with orchestral music of sheer enchantment, and allows Kaufmann to weave a spell-binding arc as a series of specific emotional states rendered in their precise aural equivalents build to a climax of such unfettered passion not everyone will be able to "go there" with him. In Licino Refice's "Ombra di nube," the CD's quiet highlight, Kaufmann traces a musical line that swells from forest hush to pealing-bell resonance so deftly the first time that you're simply stunned when he repeats it, musically verbatim but at an even higher pitch of enchantment, a second.

To know what such singing looks like onstage, go no farther than Decca's new DVD of Tosca, captured in a live performance in Zurich two years ago. It's a perfectly dandy Tosca you'll like to the degree you want to see Tosca set in a theater where they're preparing to open a show called Tosca.

Kaufmann sings the Cavaradossi of a lifetime, but that's almost the least of it. In the 10-minute opening of Act III, with hardly a note to sing, he gives a performance of jaw-dropping intensity and focus. The most ravishing "E lucevan le stelle" you've ever heard comes perilously close to being a spell-breaker, but moments later, when Kaufmann – no, Cavaradossi – sings "O dolci mani" to Tosca, hearts melt.

The day before the SF Opera Ring opens, savvy Internet users will be able to find the new Decca release of Beethoven's Fidelio, recorded in a concert performance at last summer's Lucerne Festival, with Kaufmann as Florestan; SFO's Bruennhilde, Nina Stemme, as Leonore; conducted by Abbado. For reasons known only to the saints, Decca's American arm says it will not be out in the US until July, but there will always be an England.


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