Opera News, December 2013
Poetic Sensibility
In his new disc of Verdi arias, Jonas Kaufmann responds to the music without affectation.
In his 2006 Metropolitan Opera debut as Alfredo in La Traviata, Jonas Kaufmann sounded alarmingly like a baritone. High notes were secure but perplexing. How could he carry so much vocal weight and dark color up top without running into trouble?

In a new Verdi recital CD — his first solo disc for Sony Masterworks — the tenor sounds more assured than ever, cruising through "La donna è mobile" with easygoing confidence, fitting fine articulation into a long, limber line. In vocal color and heft, Kaufmann most resembles Mario Del Monaco, with more supple and glamorous phrasing, but lacking real Italianate ping. Kaufmann even considered partnering himself in the duet from Don Carlo, and he could probably pull off a baritone stunt. The dark, virile sound of Franco Vassallo pairs well, though, and "Dio, che nell'alma infondere" moves swiftly under the baton of Pier Giorgio Morandi.

In other repertoire, all new to Kaufmann, we hear an artist responding to the music without affectation. Coloring chromatic shifts, attentive to modulations and word repetition, he seems to be developing a conductor's ear along with a demonstrated smart and poetic sensibility. Recitatives are richly detailed, especially the desolate, deeply internalized reading of Alvaro's "La vita è inferno," from La Forza del Destino, with superb clarinet contributions following the tenor's thoughts with urgency and empathy. Concentrated phrasing and a delicate timbre make the ensuing aria, "O tu che in seno," one of the disc's high points.

There's bravura throughout the recital, and not just from Kaufmann's roaring vengeance aria "Destatevi, o pietre!" from I Masnadieri,or his effective sobbing in Macduff's "O figli miei!" His enormous and responsive dynamic range is always impressive, with diminuendos among his favorite effects. Manrico's two high Cs cap a bracing, appropriately aggressive "Di quella pira," although Kaufmann transposed the scene in Munich performances of Il Trovatore over the summer. The ardent, luxuriously slow "Ah sì, ben mio" that precedes it is just as impressive in its restrained intensity and interiority. Here and elsewhere, Kaufmann holds back just when the listener expects an aria to move, commanding the ear and drawing attention to small details of words, color or emotion.

The program notes are a real treat, with Kaufmann's personal insights on difficulties, inspirations and career tidbits adding to the enjoyment of each track. He learned Otello by way of the smaller role of Cassio, which he performed early on — including at his U.S. debut, at Lyric Opera of Chicago, in 2001 — and excerpts from the title role, especially the final "Niun mi tema," are clearly works in progress that prioritize vocalism over acting. At age nineteen, he sang the small role of the Peasant in Luisa Miller, and he describes the impact made on him by repeated hearings of "Quando le sere al placido." After the agitated recitative, with its huge outburst "menzogna, tradimento, inganno," Kaufmann controls the aria's reminiscence with tender, almost off-the-voice sound. After writing about the power of a final piano in "Celeste Aida," the tenor demonstrates it most effectively, taking the high B-flat softly, then diminishing to a thread of sound while holding on just a bit longer than expected.

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