Opera News, April 2013
The Conquering Hero - Jonas Kaufmann: "Wagner"
Editor's Choice
Jonas Kaufmann's new recital confirms his status as the Wagnerian tenor of his generation.

To judge from the performances on this wide-ranging sampler, the Met's new Parsifal seems ready for coronation as the reigning Wagnerian tenor of his generation. This repertoire is often thought of as a test of strength, and Jonas Kaufmann obliges with solid, ringing tone in his selective ventures into heldentenor terrain. All selections, in fact, find him assured and forceful, apparently fully recovered from last year's throat ailment and with none of the coy, evasive manner he has sometimes demonstrated in the higher register.

If the secure attack adds a thrilling bonus, it's not the core of Kaufmann's Wagner. He is attuned to the spirit and style of this music, and of course to its text. His manner, like the strategy he brings to each scene, always feels perfectly right — even if it stands apart from tradition in some ways. He pursues a lyrical vein through the dense Wagnerian texture. Each effect blends into a larger continuous span; transitions count for more than any individual notes, impressive as the sheer sound can be.

A fine example of Kaufmann's brand of Wagnerian bel canto is the "Forest Murmurs" scene from Siegfried, which unfolds with breadth and a sense of free association (with due credit to conductor Donald Runnicles and the fine orchestra of Deutsche Oper Berlin) and finds the tenor applying his special mix of head and chest voices to register the orphan's bewilderment and yearning. His voicing of the word "Mutter," in a sustained crescendo, is awe-inspiring. In Siegmund's soliloquy, confirming his fine work in the Met's recent Die Walküre, Kaufmann gets to show off steely force ("Wälse!") as well as gleaming, delicate phrases prompted by the thought of Sieglinde. Impressive breath control underpins the unstoppable, jaw-dropping legato that distinguishes his Rienzi aria.

One can only hope that the tenor's mercurial "Am stillen Herd," from Die Meistersinger,is a harbinger of a full-length assignment. But it's doubtful that he'll tackle the entire role of Tannhäuser very soon. That hero's Act III Rome narrative is performed here in a frenzy, with a volley of fortissimos above the staff — a totally convincing dramatic-tenor display, though probably one that would be hard to duplicate in public at 11 P.M. after two long acts in the same vein. These exertions may have made Kaufmann choose not to invest the scene with narrative details, as tenors do in some recordings, although the snarling, grating tone he uses in quoting the pope's condemnation adds interest.

The Wesendonck-Lieder, while unexpected programming for a tenor, become far more than a parlor trick; this is one of the best renditions of these songs I can recall, with the musicians, led by Runnicles, marvelously supporting the tenor's fast, flexible pace and lending vibrant instrumental colors. Lohengrin's farewell rarely has either Kaufmann's radiant poise or his clarion intensity, let alone both. There's a lively coda to add even more dynamism, since Runnicles opens up a cut that Wagner himself ordered at the first performance of the work, in 1850, and which has been observed ever since (except in recordings under Leinsdorf, Barenboim and Bychkov, acting on a precedent by Heinz Tietjen in the 1930s).

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