Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York
October 5, 2018

Anyone not sated by the agreeable sugar rush of Carnegie Hall’s gala opening on Wednesday were offered a healthy dollop of Viennese schlagobers for dessert last night courtesy of star tenor Jonas Kaufmann and a program of operetta favourites. With the excellent Orchestra of St. Luke’s in the capable hands of Jochen Rieder there was much to enjoy, not least the idiomatically delivered overtures and waltzes that punctuated the recital, but the soufflé was marred by a few questionable ingredients and, too often, the soloist’s determination to croon when most of his audience were longing for him to let rip.

Jonas Kaufmann and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall. Photo © Chris Lee

Thomas Voight’s excellent program notes, extracted from Kaufmann’s 2014 Sony CD of the same name, promised a thoughtful survey of the turbulent period from a heady 1920s Berlin up until the moment when the Nazi Anschluss put paid to the careers of a whole generation of operetta composers, many of whom were forced to flee abroad as Jewish exiles. Comparisons, it suggested, would be made between the careers of Franz Lehár, Emmerich Kálmán and Robert Stolz through the hits of their golden-voiced tenorial champions, Richard Tauber, Joseph Schmidt and Jan Kiepura. Of equal interest would be the way quintessential German light music merged with the American musical sound as the genre transitioned from stage to screen. Kaufmann’s program had elements of all of those, but with roughly half of the CD on display, it was hard to avoid the feeling that a case of pick-and-mix had left us with a ragbag of sweetmeats.

But that was only half of the problem. Before he began, Kaufmann explained that the period-looking microphone plonked centre stage was to help capture the sounds and styles of the times, suggesting many of these songs were written for radio or the silver screen, but that was certainly not the case with works like Countess Mariza, Paganini, Frasquita, Giuditta – the first opera to premiere at the Vienna State Opera – and The Land of Smiles, all clearly composed to be sung by opera singers in full voice. Instead, Kaufmann over-used this source of amplification to prop up the voice in songs, many of which would have benefitted from a more ballsy sound.

Of course, Kaufmann is Kaufmann, and the instrument retains its power and lustre, though a comparison with his own CD shows how the voice has darkened over five years. Stylistically it’s a game of two halves. When he lets himself go, such as at the end of a song like Grüß mir mein Wien from Kálmán’s Gräfin Mariza, or the upbeat sections of Girls Are Made to Love and Kiss from Lehár’s Paganini, it was hard to fault him. The tone here was glorious with a his trademark burnished virility to the sound and blazing top notes.

Elsewhere, the tendency to croon over high-lying passages in particular, felt like an excuse. What in the opera house can feel like a tastefully-deployed occasional vocal choice, here verged on mannerism, and with it so frequently on display, one couldn’t help but notice that it wasn’t always as seamlessly connected to the rest of the voice as one might like. The acid test is a comparison with his role models. Tauber, for example, only very occasionally uses a light falsetto to make a point, but generally the tone is supported no matter the dynamic or tessitura. The butter-smooth Schmidt sailed effortlessly over the high notes. Kiepura, with his laser beam top, clearly didn’t know what a dimmer switch was. A lounge singer approach to My Little Nest of Heavenly Blue from Lehár’s Frasquita and Stoltz’s Im Traum hast Du mir alles erlaubt from the intriguingly named Liebeskommando were all well and good, it’s just that there are other singers who can do this as well, if not better.

Jonas Kaufmann and Jochen Rieder at Carnegie Hall. Photo © Chris Lee

Kaufmann certainly doesn’t lack passion, singing insightfully of “flirting looks” and “mysterious alleyways” with a knowing look. There’s nothing wrong either with a little husk in the tone to boost the erotic charge of Du bist die Welt für mich from Tauber’s own operetta Der Singende Traum. But the audience’s reaction to his thrilling, all-bets-off entry into Freunde das Leben ist lebenswert! from Lehár’s Giuditta was an indicator of what they’d really come to hear. Ditto the impressive, full-toned Dein ist mein ganzes Herz from The Land of Smiles with which he closed the official program. The four encores  – the third of which was not exactly called for, while the fourth was sung to a half empty auditorium – involved some textual slip-ups and were sung with the aid of an iPad.

Jochen Rieder was an impeccable accompanist throughout, coming into his own when given his head in the orchestral numbers. The broad Hungarian swing to the Gräfin Mariza overture with its perky czardas rhythms was given just the right amount of swagger. The music for the ball scene in The Merry Widow was as airy as a strudel, while the waltz from 1935’s Giuditta with its Technicolor scoring, Mediterranean castanets and sensual main theme showed what a short hop it would be to the classic Hollywood sound of the 1940s.

One never likes to diss a great artist. Kaufmann clearly has a sweet tooth and genuinely cares for this music – as do I. He sings much of it well, but too often there was a sense of a singer on cruise control. To paraphrase Nanki-Poo in The Mikado, modified Gemutlichkeit.


Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine