Mercury News, March 14, 2011
Georgia Rowe
Recital, Berkeley, 13 March 2011
Tenor Jonas Kaufmann's Bay Area debut a smash hit in Berkeley
Jonas Kaufmann's reputation precedes him. In recent years, the German tenor has become one of the opera world's hottest talents, and Sunday night in Berkeley, the crowd that packed into Zellerbach Hall for his first Bay Area appearance clearly expected to hear something sensational.

They didn't go away disappointed. Sunday's recital, co-presented by Cal Performances and the San Francisco Opera, was a triumph for Kaufmann, an artist with the good looks of a supermodel and, judging by the worshipful response of the Berkeley audience, the apparent allure of a rock star.

Kaufmann, who divides his time between opera, concerts and recitals, seems to have earned every "bravo." He is a singer of phenomenal vocal ability, great musical intelligence and undeniable star quality. His Bay Area debut put those gifts on impressive display. Accompanied by the superb pianist Helmut Deutsch, Kaufmann sang an all-German program that showcased his vocal strengths and spoke volumes about his musical affinities. And what it suggested for the future was nothing short of tantalizing.

Kaufmann, who was born in Munich, possesses a large, beautifully colored tenor voice -- firm, weighty, almost baritonal, and capable of projecting with awe-inspiring force in a good-sized hall such as Zellerbach. He's also a singer of rare dynamic range, one who can turn on a dime from powerhouse to vocalist of great sensitivity, summoning soft, effortless tone with plenty of control and flexibility at the top of the stave.

Tall, dark, slender and handsome, he's an elegant, if not particularly effusive, stage presence. He keeps gestures and facial expressions to a minimum, letting his voice carry the emotional content of the material -- not the usual choice, these days, but one that has the effect of focusing his performance. Now 41, he has sung his way -- mostly in Europe -- through much of the French and Italian tenor repertoire. This spring, however, he'll be singing his first Siegmund in Wagner's "Die Walkure" at the Metropolitan Opera (scheduled for HD broadcast in theaters on May 14.) If Sunday's recital was any indication, Siegmund may be an excellent fit for him.

Sunday's first half, devoted to Schumann lieder, revealed a keen affinity for German repertoire. Although his voice sounded a little tight in the opening selections from the composer's "Kerner Liedern," Kaufmann quickly reached secure ground with Schumann's "Dichterliebe." The epic song cycle (which incorporates texts by Heinrich Heine) traces a young man's journey from love to loss, and the tenor -- brilliantly supported by Deutsch -- made each step dramatically vibrant. His voice deftly captured Schumann's sense of tenderness and wonder; "Wenn ich in deine Augen seh" (When I gaze into your eyes) was aptly ethereal, and "Aus alten Marchen winkt es" (From old fairy tales beckons) evoked the magic of Heine's "land of bliss." Yet Kaufmann's is an essentially unsentimental reading of "Dichterliebe." To hear his voice rising to the venom of "Ich grolle nicht" (I bear no grudge) is to experience this cycle stripped of Romantic excess.

In the second half, Kaufmann turned to the music of Richard Strauss, and his performance demonstrated that the composer's long-breathed melodies are his to command. Highlights included a softly shaded, rapturous performance of "Sehnsucht" (Longing.) "Morgen" (Tomorrow), a favorite of Strauss aficionados, was exquisite, with Kaufmann floating radiant tone for what seemed a small eternity. It was a bracing reminder of the potency of live performance; even the highest quality HD broadcast can't approach the thrilling, nearly tactile impact of a voice like this, reaching out to every corner of the hall.

Apparently the audience felt it, too -- they called Kaufmann back for no fewer than four encores. Delving deeper into the German repertoire, he sang Schumann, Strauss and Lehar. Finally -- reluctantly -- the crowd let him go, cheering him off and clearly hoping for a return engagement.

 back top