The Sunday Times, 28 April 2013
Hugh Canning
Konzert, Royal Festival Hall, London, 21. April 2013
A head for heights
Jonas Kaufmann is not just the leading tenor of his generation, he is a poet and a painter in song
Jonas Kaufmann netted two ­glittering accolades in the first International Opera Awards at London’s Hilton on the Park last Monday night. Both the panel of judges — of which I was a member — and readers of Opera, the magazine under whose auspices the awards were held, concurred that Kaufmann deserved ­recognition: as best male singer and the readers’ favourite. His popularity — ­while certainly not yet at the level of Luciano Pavarotti or his Three Tenors accomplices, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras — was confirmed by a sellout Royal Festival Hall concert last Sunday, at which he sang a not exactly populist ­programme of Verdi and Wagner with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Jochen Rieder, an erstwhile colleague from his days in the ensemble of the Zurich Opera.

Kaufmann, who will be 44 this July, is no overnight star. Next year, his career will be 20 years old, and I have been writing about him in these pages since at least 1999, when he became an annual fixture at Brian McMaster’s Edinburgh Festival until 2006. Although it was clear from the start that he had star potential, thanks to his gloriously youthful and intelligent accounts of German lieder — in particular Schumann’s Dichterliebe, Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde — his big breaks in international opera came from the mid-Noughties, as he moved away from the Mozart and lyric-tenor roles that were his bread and butter in Zurich to more romantic, even heroic parts.
His Royal Opera debut came in 2004, as Ruggero in Puccini’s La rondine (The Swallow), opposite the Magda of Angela Gheorghiu, who persisted for a while in claiming that she had “discovered” Kaufmann during that run of performances, as if hitherto he had been a complete unknown. That his association with Gheorghiu raised his international ­profile is undeniable — his New York Met debut, in 2006, was as Alfredo Germont to her Violetta Valéry in Verdi’s La traviata — but since the launch of his first solo album, Romantic Arias (Decca), he has held his own as the foremost “romantic” tenor of his day. He excels in German, Italian and French operatic repertoire, as well as being a formidable interpreter of art songs. This rare combination of talents, allied to an elegant stage presence and “Italian footballer” good looks — a tad grizzled now — make him unique in our, or any other, time.
Admittedly, the circumstances of this Raymond Gubbay-promoted Royal ­Festival Hall concert were far from ideal for an artist of Kaufmann’s stature. The Philharmonia Orchestra had played ­Verdi’s Requiem electrifyingly for ­Daniele Gatti the night before. On this occasion, they sounded lacklustre under Rieder’s competent but uninspiring baton. (It’s a pity that Antonio Pappano, the awards’ conductor of the year, and his Royal Opera House orchestra were ­unavailable for this concert.) Highlights from operas rarely make for coherent concert programmes, but at least Kaufmann attempted to give some ­structure to his selection of Verdi and Wagner solos, which were sung in ­chronological order of composition.

Coincidence, perhaps, but three of the four Verdi operas he chose to sing from have dramatic connections with the ­German Friedrich Schiller — Luisa Miller, Don Carlos and La forza del destino — and, like all good Germans, Kaufmann knows his Schiller. At this stage of his career, it is hard to imagine him taking the role of Count Rodolfo in Luisa Miller into his active stage repertoire. It took time for his voice to warm to the legato line of the opera’s most famous aria, Quando le sere al placido — no, it’s not a serenade to the Spanish tenor currently singing a baritone role at Covent ­Garden. This is Verdian bel canto, and Kaufmann, with much heavier roles under his belt, is better suited to the more declamatory style of the later operas.

Despite his stated preference for the five-act version of Don Carlos in my interview with him in Culture two weeks ago, he chose to sing the aria Io la vidi in the rewrite Verdi made for the later four-act version, tearing into the preceding recitative, Io l’ho perduta! (I have lost her), with despairing intensity. Even in these operatic “offcuts”, he brings a sense of the theatre, a relish for words; and his dark, searing account of Don Alvaro’s O, tu che in seno agli angeli, from La forza del destino, whetted the appetite for his first assumption of this hard-to-cast role in Munich later this year. Kaufmann will never be the Verdi tenor of some opera-lovers’ dreams, but he has no current rivals for the brooding Dons Carlo and Alvaro, both of which hint tantalisingly at his eventual Otello to come.

His Wagner, on the other hand, is nonpareil among today’s heroic tenors, and that despite a voice of unusual lyrical qualities in this repertoire. Kaufmann has the baritonal timbre for Siegmund’s “Sword” monologue and the breath control to hang onto his cries of “Wälse!” (the alias of his father, Wotan, in Die Walküre) for a small eternity, but it is his trenchant, expressive delivery of the text and grasp of the music’s poetry that mark him out in this role. If it would have been preferable to hear him in Stolzing’s Prize Song, rather than “Am stillen Herd”, which fizzles out musically, this was another foretaste of his long-awaited debut in a role that should be a perfect vocal and histrionic fit when he tackles it on stage.

The climax of his scheduled programme was a thrilling Amfortas! Die Wunde! from Parsifal, the like of which I have not heard live before — even from Kaufmann in Vienna three weeks ago, when he was under the weather. He generously gave four encores — three by Wagner and Macduff’s aria from Verdi’s Macbeth — of which I heard two Wesendonck Songs, sung with spell-binding intimacy. Kaufmann is much more than an opera singer: he is a poet and painter, with an expressive range and palette of colour unavailable to most of his peers.

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