Classics Today
Robert Levine

Jonas Kaufmann is the tenor-du-jour, and it's easy to see why: Siegmund, Alfredo, Werther, Cavaradossi, Don José, Lohengrin--who does he think he is, Placido Domingo? But really, very few tenors have such a broad repertoire and are so good at each role. Kaufmann puts individual stamps on roles--even more so, I might add (angering two-thirds of the planet), than his great Spanish predecessor. And his voice can do more "things" than Domingo's, even in his prime, including soft high singing, an incredible messa di voce, and easy top notes. I'm not saying that Kaufmann's better, but he is most certainly to be reckoned with.

The down side, with regard to this recital of whopping big verismo arias that are the equivalent of big bowls of pasta, is that he does not have the true sound of an Italian tenor--that "ping" at the top of the voice, a sweetness that is Mediterranean, and an absolutely natural way with the swing of the music. I'm not being "racist"; just listen to the likes of Carlo Bergonzi or any of the Three Tenors or Alagna in this repertoire and you can see red checkered table cloths and bottles of Chianti all around you. On the other hand, not one of those singers is as fine a "German" tenor as Kaufmann. Enough about that.

This recital has its wonders and gives great pleasure: Kaufmann's intelligence, musicality, and handsome tone are winning. "E la solita storia" from L'Arlesiana becomes about as beautiful a lament as possible, with dynamic shadings the composer only dreamed of hearing. It's equally good to hear Chenier's "Improvviso" sung with such passion and security that the hallowed name of Franco Corelli might be invoked (although again, Kaufmann simply does not have the squillo that the Italian had). He makes more of Faust's arias from Mefistofele than anyone since Gigli's recordings, creating a truly complicated character both before (in "Dai campi...") and after (in "Giunto sul passo estremo") his misguided adventures.

"Vesti la giubba" is happily devoid of vulgarity; if you can stand to listen to this aria once more in your life, Kaufmann's will do. The other arias--both little known (by Refice, and another from Ponchielli's I Lituani) and overly familiar--and the final duet from Chenier (with a superb Eva-Maria Westbroek) are thrilling and bear the stamp of a superior artist.

Let's face it: 62 minutes of verismo arias can be a truly aggressive experience to sit through no matter who the tenor, and this CD should be listened to in thirds, as should similar ones by any of the tenors mentioned above. But don't underestimate Kaufmann--just because he's a great "German" tenor doesn't diminish his effectiveness in the Italian repertoire. And if he isn't Caruso, well, neither are you.       


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