New York Times, April 8, 2011
Verismo Arias

THE German tenor Jonas Kaufmann is one of the world’s great Wagner hopes. He has brilliance, intelligence and stamina, along with the rugged good looks of a Grail knight. Yet he is a tremendously varied singer, and he has carefully built his career on popular Italian and French roles rather than German ones.

Sticking with that strategy he is now releasing an album of arias from the Italian melodramas that startled with their raw emotions and violence when they were new, around 1900. In verismo operas like Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana,” Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” and Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” men are men, radiant with virility whether rooting out their girlfriends’ adultery, remembering past happiness or going to the guillotine.

Mr. Kaufmann certainly sounds virile, with a dark, husky tone that resembles that of the tenor Jon Vickers in his prime. He throws himself with gusto into arias like the “Improvviso” from Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier” and “Cielo e mar” from Ponchielli’s “Gioconda.” He also brings nuanced dynamics and phrasing to a repertory not known for its subtlety.

The orchestra of the National Academy of St. Cecilia shines under Antonio Pappano, and the soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek matches Mr. Kaufmann’s energy in the final duet from “Andrea Chenier.”

Yet the disc, for all its thoughtfulness and power, is not always persuasive. The long, arching lines of verismo benefit from the warm ring of a traditional red-sauce Italian tenor. That isn’t Mr. Kaufmann. Without bright, brassy resonance he can’t effortlessly fill out this slow-burning music.

This deficit can be an advantage. Having to work for every effect builds a thrilling tension, particularly in climaxes. But though Mr. Kaufmann’s singing is always credible, it is never quite natural. Even if it were, the larger problem with the disc is simply that an hour of nonstop masculinity gets a little exhausting. It turns out there’s only so much virility one can take.


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