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Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
August 10, 2014
Announced this time last year, Sydney has had plenty of time to get used to the fact that the “hottest tenorial talent” on the planet was going to make his Opera Australia debut this month. Since then, two new CDs (one of heartfelt Verdi arias, the other a darkly brooding Winterreise) have whetted our appetite for the real thing. No surprise then that the Opera House was packed and buzzing for the first of the German tenor’s scheduled appearances.
Jonas Kaufmann is a tall, good-looking 45-year-old with a full, flexible voice (“long” he called it at his press conference). His strong bottom register makes him well suited for singing his native Wagnerian repertoire, while his exciting upper extension helps him embrace French and Italian opera as well. Allied with a dramatic intelligence, mastery of language and excellent diction, he’s what can easily be described as the complete package. And I’m delighted to say the complete package was what we got tonight.
Kaufmann made his Australian debut with Italian and French arias, interspersed with orchestral preludes and interludes that led naturally into the vocal numbers. Arriving onstage beaming from ear to ear, the singer proceeded to thrill the crowd with his art, charm and passion. He began with Recondita armonia from Tosca, allowing the introduction to help him assume the character of the painter Cavaradossi – a role that he’s made very much his own since 2010. His bronzed tone and ardent delivery immediately demonstrated the special qualities of his instrument – the middle so powerful, the top easy and potent with perfectly judged gear-changes to get him up there. The climactic B was held just long enough to make the heart skip a beat.
Un dì all’azzuro spazio from Andrea Chénier followed, an object lesson in strength and passion. The revolutionary poet Chénier is a role he will debut in shortly, and with its combative energy it fits him like a glove. His ability to switch from piano to mezzo forte to forte all within a single phrase was masterly – the ascent to the top note on the word “amor” was both impressively secure and emotionally thrilling.
Kaufmann arrived in Sydney following performances of La Forza del Destino so it’s perhaps not surprising that his singing of Alvaro’s final aria from that opera was rather special. The most extended number on the program, it gave him the chance to show what a superb vocal storyteller he is. The aria proper started daringly pianissimo, rising to a heartrending “Leonora mia, soccorrimi” and a glorious “Pietà del mio penar!” So beautiful was the crescendo from pianissimo to full voice on the last note that the audience burst into applause, obliterating the orchestral play out, after which Kaufmann charmingly apologised to his conductor.
Vesti la giubba ended the first half in style, Kaufmann finding a telling bitterness in Canio’s hollow laughter rather than the self pity that sometimes comes to the fore here. The sheer volume he managed on “Ridi Pagliaccio” was a testament to Kaufmann’s impeccable vocal mechanics – not a sign of upper body tension all night.
A word of praise too for the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. Released from the confines of the Joan Sutherland pit, they were on terrific form. How nice it was to see and hear the excellent brass and percussion for once. Kaufmann’s regular conductor Jochen Rieder took them through a list of showstoppers – from the Forza del Destino Overture (with some ravishing clarinet playing), to the Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut with a touching viola solo. The second half saw concertmaster Laura Hamilton play a radiant Meditation from Thaïs, so much so that on his return to the platform Mr Kaufmann gallantly plucked a rose from one of the floral bouquets on stage and gifted it to her.
That second half got off to a rousingly vulgar start with the Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila before Kaufmann assumed two of his signature roles – Don José in Carmen (his Covent Garden breakthrough in 2007) and Werther, a part he’s pretty much made his own in recent years. The Flower Song was transfixing, especially the final pianissimo ascent on “Carmen, je t’aime”. The Werther aria, Pourquoir me réveiller, was the perfect blend of German head and French heart, and a master class in textual variety.
The program ended with Mamma, quell vino è generoso from Cavalleria Rusticana, another extended aria which allowed Kaufmann to demonstrate the exceptional parlando quality he finds to put across these texts. And this, finally, was all Italian passion! The 20-minute standing ovation that followed included three encores (two pure schmaltz with an emphasis on the ‘pure’, one pure emotion), putting a stop to some of the “short program” grumbles, and I think surprised even Kaufmann himself. Let’s hope the rapturous, and well-deserved reception encourages him to return to our shores sooner rather than later.