The Sunday Times, 18 January 2015
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
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
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
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.