Jonas Kaufmann: Verismo Arias (Decca 478 2258)
In his third solo CD for Decca, a brave, dedicated and altogether arresting piece of work, Jonas Kaufmann offers a programme of late-Romantic Italian opera arias. (Verismo Arias is its title, a shorthand categorization of the entirely post-Verdi and non-Puccini selection, though the less catchy Arias by the Giovane Scuola would have been much more accurate.) This choice of material constitutes a bold progression. Kaufmann's first Decca CD, Romantic Arias, sung in Italian, French and German, provided a showcase of his roles current and potential (or at least feasible); his second, all in his native language, was sited in what could fairly be called his ‘home territory' of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Wagner.
This latest, in contrast, embodying a repertory and, by extension and implication, a voice production and artistic approach not commonly associated with even the most versatile of German tenors past and present, signifies ‘something different'. According to the Kaufmann interview-portrait serving as Decca's booklet essay, he plans to take on Chénier at some future date; when this notice appears he will be in the middle of playing Maurizio in Covent Garden's new Adriana Lecouvreur. For the rest, the CD represents a series of steps in unfamiliar directions, taken boldly and with complete confidence and conviction.
The ‘default' tenor of this repertory, and in fact the ‘creator' of three roles instanced here-Cilea's Federico (L'arlesiana) and Maurizio, and Giordano's Loris (Fedora)-was, and through his records remains, Caruso. In our day only Plácido Domingo has performed in the theatre, rather than just in the recording studio, a large number of the operas on Kaufmann's bill, and among the Italian or Italianate tenors currently in giro on the world stages only Salvatore Licitra can be said to possess by natural right, and in spite of obvious technical shortcomings, the sort of spinto voice implied by the disc's contents. Does voice, in this sense, really matter? Yes, it must do-at least to those whose inner ear may have conditioned itself to expect the incomparable shine, warmth and slancio of Caruso's delivery whenever, say, ‘Vesti la giubba', or Chénier's Improvviso, or ‘Testa adorata' (from the ‘other' Bohème, one of Caruso's most glorious records) is essayed. Throughout this CD the noticeably darkened tinge of Kaufmann's timbre, in comparison even with his own Romantic Arias self of a couple of years ago, may well ‘throw' die-hard traditionalists. Likewise his unfamiliarly intense way of addressing dark moods and sentiments, his unfamiliar willingness to explore a wide range of p, mp and mf shades and nuances, and his slow-burn approach (that of a born Lieder-singer?) to the build-up of a whole piece, especially well demonstrated in his unhurried, infinitely poignant unfolding of Federico's ‘E la solita storia'. Is there something disconcerting about Turiddu's drinking song in this muscular, slightly unsmiling account of it? Does Kaufmann deny us something of the unforced lyricism that makes listening to, say, Bergonzi's ‘La dolcissima effigie' or, in our own day, Joseph Calleja's version, such a smile-on-the-face experience? Is there sufficient rapt romance in this ‘Cielo e mar'?
For me, any such initial question-marks simply got discarded on repeated listening, above all because the sheer originality, versatility and freshness-the excellence-of what Kaufmann creates in every piece demands from the listener a comparable willingness to bring fresh ears to the listening. He takes nothing for granted, does nothing ‘traditionally'-well, apart from the peal of harsh laughter after Canio's ‘Bah! sei tu forse un uom?', which I'd have preferred excised-yet because his intelligence, theatricality and instinctive grasp of word and note enable him to dig below the surface of each character, I found myself putting aside preconceived notions and rejoicing in the singer's manner of encouraging me to do so. Plainly the warm-hearted, impassioned quality of Pappano's conducting and the vitality of the Santa Cecilia orchestral playing were of incalculable benefit; the CD's totality gives an impression of mutually and corporately inspired music-making that is light years distant from the plodding routine usually associated with recital discs of this sort. (Pappano evidently also aided in the choice of such attractive rarities as the Refice and Lituani items, although I wish that the space devoted to the two vacuous Mefistofele numbers had been allotted instead to something from Iris and Zazà.)
In the end, the disc's most thrilling aspects are the expansiveness, the athletic going-for-gold of Kaufmann's singing style as represented here: he commands the vocal substance not simply to lay out an aria performance along the broadest lines but unfalteringly to bring it to a broadly sustained climax, the tone carrying both the line and the emotional content to the intended peak every time. Zandonai's ‘Giulietta! Son io' launches the disc; I know it from Del Monaco's stentorian 1950s reading and Alagna's lightweight but eloquent recent one, but had no idea that its sequence of repeated ‘Giulietta mia!' cries could be made so grandly and wrenchingly powerful. The bitterness and vehemence of ‘Vesti la giubba', the violent denunciations of the Improvviso middle section, the unstinted heroism of the final Chénier duet (in which Kaufmann's generous-toned if somewhat generalized Maddalena is Eva-Maria Westbroek) all become ‘authentic' in a way that only a true front-rank artist can make them. What I wrote in these columns (November 2009, pp. 1396-8) of the second Decca recital disc requires repeating: ‘the programme rewards all-the-way-through listening in a way few recital discs I know can match'. That Kaufmann has done it again is an outstanding achievement indeed.