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.
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
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
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.