Opera News 4/2011
The OPERA NEWS Awards: Jonas Kaufmann
"Mesmeric" is a term much used but seldom earned; yet in the case of Jonas Kaufmann it barely suffices to describe his effect on an audience. There is a hypnotic intensity to his gaze, an overwhelming emotional pull to his singing that draws us directly into his imaginary world. Kaufmann makes us believe so wholeheartedly in him personally that he enables us to suspend our disbelief in everything around him as well.

"I get so absorbed in my roles, it's like a drug," he has said. His way of projecting character through body language and facial expression is at once powerful and restrained, rich in detail and utterly riveting. Just watch his eyes when he is onstage: there is not one instant of hesitation, of doubt about what his character is feeling or where his thoughts are focused. He lives the role fully from his first entrance, and if a particular moment looks or sounds different from the way you remember it in a favorite predecessor's performance, there is such keen dramatic awareness in Kaufmann's choices that you can only admire him for proving that it can be just as powerful done another way.

These are rare qualities; rarer still is his determination to make the work itself the guiding force behind every impulse, vocal or visual. A great opera singer achieves his effects not merely through histrionic instinct and native charisma but through the music and the text. In an era of idiosyncratic, self-conscious and often wayward approaches to the dramatic side of opera, Kaufmann has the courage to surrender himself to the message inherent in libretto and score. Whatever oddball setting surrounds him, whatever unlikely business he is saddled with, he finds a way to bring the creators' original intentions to life. Place his Lohengrin on a Playskool construction site, and he will convince you that the laying of bricks and smearing of mortar are acts of the tenderest romantic devotion. Oblige his Werther to sing "O nature" on a set devoid of flower, grass or tree, and he will conjure an enchanted vista through the enraptured expression in his eyes.

According to family lore, Kaufmann recognized his calling at the age of five, when he saw his first opera. Studies at the Hochschüle für Musik in his native Munich led to a debut in Saarbrücken and a contract at Zurich Opera, where he began to build the reputation that has since led him to all the great opera houses of the world. No doubt his slender physique, melting brown eyes, mop of ultra-romantic brown curls and perpetual five o'clock shadow played an initial part in drawing the attention of the opera world. But it is this singer's commitment to musical drama — an approach both intelligent and instinctive, his passionate nature rigorously disciplined to produce the effect of spontaneity within the confines of a secure technique — that has raised him to the top of his profession.

Kaufmann's is essentially a lean, compact sound with a mellow, silvery sheen, but it can acquire a dark, hooded quality in moments of desolation, or blossom into a warm, golden glow at the upper end of an arching, lyrical line. He knows how to build a phrase over a long stretch via beautifully integrated dynamic and rhythmic modulations. Yet listening to him, one never stops to marvel at any one specific skill; one is too caught up in the overall sweep of the vocal line as a conveyer of torment or passion, fury or sacred duty or despair.

Perhaps it was spending his formative years in multilingual Switzerland that allowed Kaufmann to develop an equally strong affinity for French, Italian and German repertoire. He is an echt Florestan, a highly Gallic Don José, a fervent interpreter of Verdi's quintessentially Italian Requiem. He seems entirely at home in all three languages and styles, and in each one, the words come across indelibly in the miraculously pristine diction that, for Kaufmann, is not merely a technical accomplishment but an essential expressive resource.

In a video of his Zurich Florestan from 2004, Kaufmann's Christ-like appearance, enhanced by a distinct halo of backlighting, is perfectly matched by an inner radiance that shines not only from his eyes but in his clear, luminous voice. For a brief moment, this prisoner's sense of oppression and degradation is audible in the bleak, covered sound that emerges in his initial outcry, "Gott! welch Dunkel hier!" — a sound at first so colorless and drained of life as to suggest an emanation from beyond the grave. But led by librettist Sonnleithner's words of unconquerable faith, and by Beethoven's gradually soaring melody, Kaufmann allows the vibrancy to flood back into his tone, so that by the time he arrives at Florestan's defining declaration — "Doch gerecht ist gottes Wille!" — there is no mistaking the indomitable spirit that has kept this forlorn and forgotten man alive. Though the staging allows him no more than the barest movement, Kaufmann times those minimal moves so aptly to the shifts in musical tone that he seems literally to be riding the phrase as he rises as high as his fetters will permit him and then falls prostrate again.

Kaufmann is a tenor for our time — one who can channel the hopes and passions of an earlier, less cynical era and bring them to palpable life for us today. His deeply personal connection with the music engenders an equally intense desire to communicate that connection with the public. There is no sense of calculation in his singing: he seems genuinely, literally inspired — in the grip of forces outside his own control. He once offered this explanation of his modus operandi: "You squeeze as many emotions out of your soul as you can, and fill up your sound with those feelings." And isn't that marriage of sound and substance the one true essential — the very thing opera is all about?

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