Opera News, Oktober 2019
By F.Paul Driscoll
Razzle Dazzle Us
Superstar Jonas Kaufmann releases a new CD this month.
I'VE BEEN A FAN of Jonas Kaufmann’s singing since 1999, when John Bell Young, a freelance critic for OPERA NEWS, urged me to listen to a 1996 recording of Carl Loewe’s “Oriental” singspiel, Die Drei Wünsche, which had just been released in the U.S. by Capriccio. Jonas Kaufmann was cast in the supporting role of Hassan, the son of an impoverished merchant. At that time, I had never heard of Kaufmann—he had not yet appeared in the U.S. and had sung relatively few high-profile performances in Europe—but my curiosity was piqued by Young’s assessment of the work of the twenty-seven-year-old tenor. After comparing Kaufmann’s voice to Fritz Wunderlich’s, Young’s OPERA NEWS review went on to praise Kaufmann as “a compellingly intense singer who pays attention to inflection and motivic articulation in the context of a cumulative, goal-oriented rhythm. He navigates the elaborate fioriture of [Hassan’s] Act III cavatina, ‘Philosophie oder liebe,’ with uncommon ease, impeccable legato and a clarion yet full-bodied sonority richly supported in every register.”

I was understandably curious: could anyone be that good? I listened to the CD immediately—and yes, Jonas Kaufmann was that good. He still is. Kaufmann is now one of opera’s most important singers, an artist who has been hailed at the major theaters of Europe, as well as at the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall and Lyric Opera of Chicago. I’ve seen all nine of Kaufmann’s roles at the Met since his debut there, as Alfredo in a 2006 Traviata; his 2010 Cavaradossi, his 2011 Siegmund and his 2013 Parsifal for the company are among the most vivid performances of my opera-going experience, as is his des Grieux opposite Natalie Dessay’s Manon at Lyric Opera of Chicago, in 2008.

That said, I wish I could have seen Kaufmann more. He has sung only fifty-six performances with the Met in the past thirteen years, although the tally was planned to be higher: Kaufmann’s list of cancellations in New York includes a new Manon Lesaut in 2016 and a new Tosca in 2017. After an absence of more than four years, he returned to the Met in October 2018, to sing Dick Johnson in four performances of a Fanciulla del West revival, including a Live in HD matinée now available on the company’s website through Met Opera on Demand. (During the Fanciulla run, Kaufmann did the photoshoot for this article: despite the distraction of a full network television crew, Kaufmann’s concentration and collegiality remained sovereign.)

For me, the HD performance of last season’s Fanciulla captures fully the impact of Kaufmann’s gifts as a singing actor whose extraordinary dramatic and musical specificity allow him to summon strength, vulnerability and good humor in a single moment. In Act I, the hurried pantomime of Dick Johnson’s search for the gold is perfectly calculated, and Kaufmann’s body language telegraphs the exact moment the outlaw decides to return the treasure. In Act II, Kaufmann invests Dick’s “Mi tolgo?” with striking playfulness and spontaneity, and he paces the love scene with Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Minnie unerringly: Kaufmann looks at Westbroek as if he were genuinely eager to hear what she will say next, singing his phrases in the duet with romantic urgency, as if they were caresses. In Act III, the dignified, concentrated simplicity of Kaufmann’s “Ch’ella mi creda” is transfixing, with the phrase “Minnie, che m’hai voluto tanto bene” tinged with genuine heartbreak.

AT FIFTY, singularly attractive and charismatic, Kaufmann is an authentic star with surpassing powers of persuasion. Other tenors may sing with greater volume, but few can invest a character with the emotional force that Kaufmann brings to a performance. His acting is unfailingly imaginative and generous, and the sound of Kaufmann’s voice, in which flashes of light pierce an intriguingly smoky timbre, is immediately recognizable—an innate advantage for recordings. My own favorites of Kaufmann’s discs to date are Verismo Arias, released by Decca in 2010—his traverse of the Refice song “Ombra di nube” is three minutes and twenty-three seconds of pure guilty pleasure—and Sehnsucht, a 2009 disc paced by Claudio Abbado that features arias from Die Walküre, Lohengrin and Parsifal, operas that have since joined Kaufmann’s impressive catalogue of performances available on DVD.

This month, Sony will release Jonas Kaufmann: Wien, a new disc of operetta arias and duets; a concert of the material from the disc is scheduled for Vienna in October, with a full European concert tour to follow in early 2020. Kaufmann’s 2019–20 schedule also promises Die Tote Stadt in Munich, Fidelio at Covent Garden and Die Walküre in Paris. There are no Kaufmann engagements currently announced for the U.S. until April, when he is scheduled to join Andris Nelsons and the BSO for highly anticipated concert performances of Act III of Tristan und Isolde in Boston and at Carnegie Hall. Twenty years ago, I would never have predicted Tristan as a role for Kaufmann, but in 2018 BSO concerts, he met the challenges of Act II of Tristan with enormous style. Jonas Kaufmann remains an artist full of surprises.


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