The Sunday Times, 18 January 2015
Hugh Canning
Keeping up with Jonas
He’s the world’s leading tenor, but who are Jonas Kaufmann’s potential rivals?

"In 40 or more years of opera-going, I can’t think of a leading tenor about to open a new production of Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier — one of the few hits by a rival composer during Puccini’s domination of the art form in Italy — who three weeks earlier delivered an outstanding account of Schumann’s song masterpiece Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love) in the same city. Yet that’s what Jonas Kaufmann has achieved.

Almost the first music I heard the German tenor sing live in Britain, at the 2001 Edinburgh Festival, was the Schumann cycle, but even his Liszt (Italian) Sonetti di Petrarca did not then signal to me that he would become just as prized as a Verdi, Puccini and friends singer as for Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, Wagner and Richard Strauss. Over five years, his annual stint in Edinburgh took in the tenor leads of Weber’s Der Freischütz, Strauss’s Capriccio and Wagner’s Mastersingers, but he hasn’t been heard in a complete German role in the UK since 2006.

Today, he counts as the finest “Italian” tenor in the world, certainly at Covent Garden, despite regularly being disparaged as too German-sounding outside his native country. Paradoxically, I have heard his Wagner considered too Italianate in his native country. He can’t win.

The point is, surely, that there hasn’t been a tenor as versatile as Kaufmann in living memory: not since the original Andrea Chénier, Giuseppe Borgatti, the first Italian Heldentenor to sing at Bayreuth. His stage presence, good looks, acting ability and charisma have placed him at the pinnacle of a generation of excellent tenors who can’t match his appeal, certainly at the box office.

Andrea Chénier is a tough sell outside Italy these days, and it’s significant that it hasn’t been seen at Covent Garden since the heydays of Carreras and Domingo in the early 1980s. Pavarotti took it on late in his career, when he was no longer the swashbuckling figure that the part of the romantic French revolutionary poet demands.

A quarter of a century has passed since the Three Tenors phenomenon rocked the classical world around the time of the World Cup in Italy. The brand worked for a while, but none of its sequels matched the success of the initial album, with the three-voiced Nessun Dorma and the bejazzled O Sole Mio. Follow-ups with younger classical singers — anyone remember the “Two Tenors” album, by Marcelo Alvarez and Salvatore Licitra (the latter killed in a motorcycle accident in 2011, at the age of 43)? — have been flops, while the big beneficiaries of the Three Tenors boom have been popera tenors such as Andrea Bocelli and Russell Watson, who would struggle to sing in the big opera houses without electronic help. Kaufmann fills opera houses, but he would hardly fill arenas, where the big money is made, outside Germany at least.

Even so, none of his older or younger rivals has his pulling power. The Italian Vittorio Grigolo, who comes from the crossover world via Il divo, has charm and presence aplenty, and was a big hit with the audience as Nemorino in the Royal Opera’s recent revival of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. Both he and his Maltese contemporary, Joseph Calleja, have slighter instruments than Kaufmann, but they concentrate on tenor roles that require a lighter touch: Rodolfo in La bohème, the Duke in Rigoletto, Gounod’s Faust. Kaufmann, meanwhile, sets his sights on Otello and Wagner’s Tannhäuser, which Grigolo and Calleja won’t be singing any time soon.

Perhaps the most successful lyric tenor is Kaufmann’s almost exact contemporary, the Pole Piotr Beczala, arguably the most elegant and refined exponent of youthful romantic leads. He and Kaufmann were colleagues in the ensemble of the Zurich Opera for a decade or so, and share some roles, but their talents are complementary. (Beczala’s next album for DG, The French Collection — arias by Boieldieu, Verdi, Bizet, Gounod, Massenet — is out next month.)

A stouter challenge is posed by a rising generation of American tenors, all in their early thirties. To the names of Bryan Hymel — whose imminent French album on Warner suggests a heroic future with Domingo-like accents, in arias from Berlioz’s The Trojans, Massenet’s Le Cid and Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine — and Stephen Costello, lyric tenors with an upper extension, can be added Michael Fabiano, whose Alfredo at Glyndebourne last summer had a mixed reception. I thought he had outgrown the part in such a small theatre; his performances as Rodolfo in the huge opera houses of San Francisco and New York last autumn, however, garnered ecstatic reviews and acclaim on the internet.

Fabiano makes his Covent Garden debut next season as Lenski in Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onyegin, and will be Rodolfo in Richard Jones’s new RO Bohème in 2017. The potential here is huge: he’s a handsome man with the vocal chops to become the most significant American tenor since Richard Tucker. Also watch Brian Jagde, another big-voiced good-looker, who makes his RO debut in April, as Pinkerton opposite Kristine Opolais’s Butterfly.

We seem blessed with specialists: the Peruvian Juan Diego Florez is the brightest star at the virtuoso Rossini-Donizetti-Bellini end of the spectrum, but he has rivals aplenty as his chosen operas find new friends: the bigger-voiced Hymel; his compatriot John Osborn, who sings the fiendish heroic role of Arnold in the RO’s new William Tell in June; and the Mexican Javier Camarena, yet to sing at the ROH, who wowed the Met in Rossini’s Cinderella and Bellini’s I Puritani. His is an impressive instrument, and he is a stylist with a formidable technique, although he hasn’t a fraction of Florez’s elegant stage persona. At the Met, that may matter less than it does in Europe.

Without an abundance of tenors in the Pavarotti-Domingo-Carreras mould — to be fair, the job, in the theatre at any rate, is different today — we should all be grateful for Kaufmann. I can’t think of another contemporary tenor who I would — yet — want to see and hear as Andrea Chénier.


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