Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2007
Opera Critics Sing Jonas Kaufmann's Praises
The London music critics are seldom unanimous: They are just too many for that. Their reports on a new "Carmen" at the Royal Opera House in December, the first there since 1991, ran the gamut. The director Francesca Zambello, the conductor Antonio Pappano, the soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci as Bizet's gypsy siren -- all took some heavy brickbats to balance their bravos. Not, however, the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann (YO-nahss KOWF-mahn), 37, in his role debut as Don José, the homicidally jealous dragoon. For him it was hearts and flowers all the way.

Some of the reviews were content simply to extol, describing Mr. Kaufmann as "great" or "superb." Others ranked him with such legendary predecessors as Jon Vickers and José Carreras. The Financial Times asked: "Could he be Domingo's heir?" (And to think that Don José had previously been entrusted to Roberto Alagna, who canceled for the sake of the ill-fated "Aida" at La Scala, where boos for his opening aria struck him, he later told the press, "like a death blow." As widely reported, Mr. Alagna fled the stage in midscene, was barred from later performances, and is now threatening legal action.)

Don José is a tormented fellow with eloquent music to sing, in moods that range from nostalgia to desperation, from shame and self-pity to blind rage. Not only did Mr. Kaufmann strike all these chords, he also found ways to blend them. A high point, as one hopes against hope that it will be, was the Flower Song, Don José's abashed declaration of a humiliating love, sung in tones of unconditional emotional surrender. As an actor, Mr. Kaufmann used his lanky physique and fallen-angel countenance (framed by curls that tumble to his shoulders) as expressively as his voice.

And when Ms. Zambello asked him to enter a scene rappelling down the side of a cliff, he could do that, too, with a panther's stealthy grace.

Mr. Kaufmann saw his first opera at the age of 5. "It was 'Madama Butterfly' at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich," he recalled over a late dinner after his penultimate Don José. "We were sitting in the first row, right by the conductor," he recalled. "The one thing that disappointed me was Cio-Cio-San's curtain call. I'd just seen her kill herself with my own eyes! How could she come out for a bow after that?" Pro that he is, he has learned to live with that little paradox without losing his belief in the truthfulness of the stage.

The way other boys decide to be pilots or firemen, little Jonas knew right away that he wanted to be an opera singer -- not that he was in any hurry. Talent scouts from the Regensburger Domspatzen -- the "sparrows of Regensburg Cathedral," rivals of the Vienna Choir Boys -- heard him in a children's chorus and invited him to join, but he kept the news to himself until years later. "I was happy at home," Mr. Kaufmann says. "I liked being with my family. I didn't want to go to boarding school." His formal study of voice began when he was in his mid-teens and ended when he completed his training at the Hochschule für Musik, in Munich.

Just as Mr. Kaufmann -- all of 27 -- was finding his way into work with regional German opera companies, the Italian master director Giorgio Strehler put out a casting call for "Così Fan Tutte." The production of Mozart's dark comedy of romantic disillusionment was to be Strehler's last. Some 500 hopeful tenors sent in videos for his personal review. At a live audition in Milan, Strehler told Mr. Kaufmann to his face that he was too old. Yet in the end, a panicky last-minute offer came through, and Mr. Kaufmann was on his way to an international career.

In the intervening decade, Mr. Kaufmann has proved hard to classify. He has sung Nero, the depraved Roman emperor of Monteverdi's scintillating "Incoronazione di Poppea"; Titus, the preternaturally forgiving Roman emperor, in Mozart's "Clemenza di Tito"; Beethoven's freedom fighter Florestan, in "Fidelio," hallucinating in his dungeon; as well as such title roles as Verdi's Don Carlos, doomed Infante of Spain, and Wagner's holy fool Parsifal.

"I don't think of myself as a German tenor or an Italian tenor or a French tenor," Mr. Kaufmann says. "I try to do it all. I think I'm able to, and I think it's healthy for me. Working in different styles, you learn things that you can take to other repertoire. The last thing I'd want right now would be to make a CD called 'Jonas Kaufmann, Italian Tenor.' I'd rather present a program that includes a little of everything -- which used to be a perfectly ordinary thing to do."

In fact, his discography to date has been somewhat catch-as-catch-can. The CDs to look for are Weber's "Oberon," sung in English and conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, which Mr. Kaufmann's youthful ardor sets ablaze (Philips), and a revelatory recital of lieder by Richard Strauss, normally the province of seraphic sopranos (Harmonia Mundi). In addition, Mr. Kaufmann may be seen in full theatrical cry on DVDs from the Zurich Opera House. Naxos distributes Paisiello's 18th-century hit "Nina," in which Mr. Kaufmann partners Cecilia Bartoli's lovelorn heroine (on the Arthaus Musik label), and "Fidelio," documenting his visionary, heart-rending Florestan (on TDK). Next month, EMI adds "La Clemenza di Tito" to the list, showcasing Mr. Kaufmann not only as a Mozartean of distinction but also as opera's answer to Jude Law.

It's an impressive body of work, but under an exclusive contract with Decca, to be announced next week, Mr. Kaufmann hopes to develop a steadier stream of recording projects. First up is Schubert's song cycle "Die Schöne Müllerin" (The Fair Maid of the Mill), ideally suited to his vibrant lyricism. The song repertoire is a special interest of Mr. Kaufmann's, and in future CDs he means to explore it further.

But with rare exceptions, a classical singer's reputation is made on the opera stage. Somewhat to some colleagues' surprise, Mr. Kaufmann continues to make his home base at the Zurich Opera House. The company suits him on many counts: its uncompromising artistic standards, knowledgeable audiences, generous fees, proximity to his home, wife and three children -- and its modest scale (1,165 seats).

"There are things I can sing in Zurich that I can't yet sing in bigger houses," Mr. Kaufmann said. "You can make a lot of music with a little voice." A little voice? For now, the instrument sounds intrinsically lyric rather than heroic, true. But it projects with ease; there's an edge of metal there. The timbre is noble. And if it boasts no single color of a splendor that simply takes the breath away (as Pavarotti's golden tone could do), Mr. Kaufmann's imaginative shadings give him a palette of seductive variety and nuance.

His sterling talents are not lost in the vastness of the Metropolitan Opera, where he made his debut last year opposite the glamorous Angela Gheorghiu in Verdi's "La Traviata." In March, he returns to the Met for further performances of that opera. In the fall, he also parachuted in for three outings as Mozart's Prince Tamino in the Julie Taymor production of "The Magic Flute." Rather than the conventional, stiff paragon of virtue, Mr. Kaufmann played a well-born dimwit more than a little out of his depth in the cosmic power struggle between the tempestuous Queen of the Night and Sarastro, high priest of the Enlightenment doctrine that Father Knows Best. The result was graceful, droll and subtly touching.

"A purely heroic Tamino doesn't work," Mr. Kaufmann remarks. "And honestly, how bright can he be?" Fairy tale or tragedy -- for him, it's real.

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