Mark Pullinger

Insieme - Opera Duets (Jonas Kaufmann, Ludovic Tézier)
There have been some great tenor-baritone double acts down the decades. How many people, for instance, were introduced to the delights of opera via Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill’s famed recording of the Pearl Fishers duet? It’s one of the great friendship duets, but tenors and baritones are more often set as operatic rivals.

In the early 1970s, Plácido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes were a familiar pairing on many complete operas for RCA and EMI. They recorded a fabulous disc of duets together (7/71) as well as an album of arias where each conducted the New Philharmonia for the other (3/74 – Domingo’s first conducting gig?). As well as being good foils for each other – Milnes’s noble baritone blending well with Domingo’s baritonal tenor – the two were great friends and obviously spurred each other to be their very best.

Also spurring each other to be their very best are today’s leading tenor-baritone bromance, Jonas Kaufmann and Ludovic Tézier. The German tenor is operatic royalty, in demand around the globe and able to pick and choose his roles in whichever house he fancies. Critics will argue which repertoire suits him best, but he’s proved himself in German, Italian and French operas and even took on the role of Peter Grimes this year. His good pal Tézier recently took his first foray into Wagnerian territory, singing Amfortas – opposite Kaufmann’s Parsifal, naturally – but is most associated with Italian roles. He is the reigning Verdi baritone de nos jours and his debut disc of arias deservedly won a Gramophone Award in 2021.

Despite Bizet’s hit number, Verdi composed the very best tenor-baritone duets and he dominates this new programme: the friendship duet from Don Carlos; the closing scene from Act 2 of Otello; two father-son duets from Les vępres siciliennes; and the three duets that chart Don Carlo’s hounding of Don Alvaro from army camp to monastery in La forza del destino.

I have seen them in Don Carlos in Paris and in Forza in London, and there’s a real spark when Kaufmann and Tézier sing together. Their voices fit like a glove here in the Don Carlos duet (sung in the original French version, so quite extended at the beginning). Like Milnes and Domingo, they’re quite close in timbre, so the bond of friendship seems especially strong. They blend beautifully too in ‘Solenne in quest’ora’ from Forza, in a scene where both characters are in disguise – hey, this is opera – Alvaro believing he is dying and entrusting a sealed packet to his new friend. In the two later duets from the opera, Tézier goads Kaufmann’s Alvaro doggedly. Perhaps the sparks don’t fly as viscerally as Mario Del Monaco going at it hammer and tongs with Ettore Bastianini in their Decca recording (12/55), but you can tell they’re both well inside their characters due to their stage experience.

Kaufmann has now settled into the role of Otello, here flying off the handle with real anger. Iago is a newer role to Tézier (making his debut in 2021) but his account of Cassio’s dream is darkly insinuating and they let rip in the closing duet where they swear vengeance, ‘Sě, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!’ Montfort and Henri in Vępres are not yet (to my knowledge) in Tézier or Kaufmann’s rep, but given their performances here I’d dearly love to see them in a revival of Stefan Herheim’s Royal Opera staging. There’s a nobility to their singing in the original French version, whereas Milnes and Domingo (in Italian) are much more brusque. With one of the world’s greatest Verdians, Antonio Pappano, pacing the music with his unerring sense of drama, the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia coat these Verdi duets in luxury wrapping. If only Sony had condescended to provide texts and translations in the booklet.

Away from Verdi, the programme opens with Rodolfo and Marcello mooning over their failed relationships in La bohčme (perhaps not the most convincingly youthful bohemians). And there’s that terrific scene for Enzo Grimaldo and the Inquisition spy, Barnaba, from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, their two stylish voices opening up like a pair of Porsches. This was another Del Monaco/Bastianini favourite (2/58), guaranteed to get the blood pumping. The only thing that’s really missing is that Pearl Fishers duet. Fear not, mes amis, for Tézier guested on Kaufmann’s 2017 French disc ‘L’Opéra’ (10/17), where I reported their voices blended ‘like coffee and cream’. The perfect encore after an incredibly enjoyable album.

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