CLASSIC fM, March 2008
Leader of the pack
In a world full of tenors, Jonas Kaufmann shows off his skill, style and versatility to wondrous effect in his eclectic new disc of Romantic arias
Disc of the month
Kaufmann captures the essence of each character — sweetly wooing one moment, agonised the next

Tenor voices, like their owners, come in all shapes and sizes - think of the golden, ringing sound of Pavarotti, the lightness and agility of Juan Diego Flórez, the darker tones of Plácido Domingo and Rolando Villazón, the sweet, light sound of English tenors John Mark Ainsley and Ian Bostridge, and the dramatic weight of Wagnerian heroes Jon Vickers and Ben Heppner. And in between these examples are all sorts of other subtle shades and colours; the beauty of the human voice is that no two are ever the same. Yet the musical world loves to pigeonhole its singers as lyric, spinto, dramatic, etc. so it’s particularly refreshing when a singer comes along who is almost impossible to categorise, thanks to the scope and breadth of his repertoire.

One such singer is the young German tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Music lovers at home on Boxing Day last year may have seen his electrifying and slightly unhinged performance as the handsome but ultimately murderous soldier Don José, in the broadcast of the Royal
Opera House’s acclaimed production of Bizet’s Carmen. Kaufmann’s previous Decca recording, of Strauss Lieder, won the Best Solo Vocal Classic FM Gramophone Award in 2007. Now he has released a disc of Romantic arias in Italian, French and German that show off the many aspects of his voice and work in the opera world.

On paper he might be described as having a dramatic or spinto (an Italian term, meaning ‘pushed’) voice. It’s certainly a big sound, dark and burnished with a baritonal hint, but it opens out into a thrilling, ringing top. Yet he sounds as at home in Wagner as he does in ‘Che gelida manina’, the comparitively gentle aria from La bohème that opens the disc. You get a hint of the power in his voice here as he ascends to the famous high C, complete with authentic Italianate ‘sob’. Contrast this to the next aria: the very different, and very French, style of ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’ from Carmen. He captures Don José’s passion and desperation: there’s the obligatory high note too, but in this case it is delicate, pianissimo and ‘floated’. Some tenors sing this falsetto, but Kaufmann goes for the more satisfying (and difficult) ‘mixed voice’ - a masculine sound that’s appropriate to the character. You catch a glimpse of what makes him such a convincing Don José on stage.

These arias are, impressively, all roles he’s sung in opera houses around the world, apart from ‘Ach so fromm’, a stand-alone aria from the little-performed Martha by Flotow. It’s often sung in Italian as ‘m’appari’ (incidentally, it was a favourite of James Joyce -he mentions it in Ulysses). Listening to the disc in its entirety, you are struck by Kaufmann’s ability to capture the essence of each character in the few minutes he has for each aria. He is honeyed and sweetly wooing in ‘Che gelida manina’, contrasting with the agony of ‘E lucevan le stelle’ from Tosca. as Cavaradossi contemplates his mortality. He is ardent in ‘Morgenlich’ from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and here proves himself more than capable of singing Wagner’s long, taxing vocal lines. In the Verdi arias (from Rigoletto and La traviata) he shows off his credentials in the belcanto style - his Italian, too, is excellent.

Particularly striking is ‘Ah fuyez’, from Massenet’s Manon, where Kaufmann conveys the tortured passion of Des Grieux, who, having been left by gold-digger Manon, is about to take his priest’s vows and tries to expel her image from his mind. The final aria on the disc, Werther’s passionate ‘Pourquoi me reveiller’, where the doom-laden hero contemplates his own death (the suicidal Werther shoots himself at the end of the opera), completes the portrait of a truly exceptional talent of whom we are certain to be hearing a lot more in the future.

Kaufmann is ably accompanied by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Marco Armiliato; there’s a real sense of drive and excitement about the ensemble that gives the recording the sense of a live performance. The running order of the disc has been carefully planned to show off as wide a contrast between each of the arias as possible and makes a very satisfying listen. One aspect of Kaufmann’s work that has not been included is his interpretation of Mozart, but, as he says, Mozart’s tenor music doesn’t fit into the concept of ‘Romantic arias’ and this is something he is ‘keeping for next time’ anyway. On the strength of this disc, it will certainly be a project to look forward to.

Jonas Kaufmann
The Munich-born tenor talks about his varied repertoire

We were all glued to our TVs during your Carmen broadcast on Boxing Day...

I enjoyed being in that very much but haven’t seen the broadcast yet — I hope someone has recorded it. I played Don José as a brave, handsome young guy, but gradually you get the feeling that something is not quite right with him...

Was it difficult to choose the repertoire for the disc?

Very difficult! I was desperate to record so much but you can’t do everything! I very much wanted to make a mixed album to show what I can do and to have lots of varied angles, but at the same time to have a thread running through it. Most of the arias are Romantic in period or style, and that’s the kind of singer I am.

How did you discover your true voice?

My natural born voice is not a common one in Germany. I began my career in the small German opera houses — rehearsing one opera in the morning and performing another in the evening, singing seven or eight hours a day. It is very tiring and at that point I was advised to sing in a light, German style to save the voice, but that was a mistake — it didn’t feel right. Then I found another teacher, an American baritone, who said I mustn’t hold back and try to imitate a light voice, I should just let it out. I had to convince myself at first but I realised he was right when I didn’t get tired, vocally. I was lucky to have the right advice, because that is what all singers are trying to find — their true voice.

Do you have any favourite arias or operas?

I’m pleased to include ‘Ach so fromm’ because it is in my native tongue and my hero, German tenor Fritz Wunderlich, used to sing it —he inspired me to follow the path I have. But I haven’t really any favourites. I’m the sort of singer who convinces himself that whatever I’m doing at the moment is my absolute favourite. And I get bored easily and like the variety! I also believe that, by singing the many styles I do, each informs the other and brings colour and depth to my interpretations.

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