Jonas Kaufmann is in many ways the model modern tenor.
One of the biggest opera stars in the world, he has dashing looks a la George Clooney. He’s a more than capable actor who has been a touching Tristan this summer in an emotionally austere Bavarian State Opera production, broadcast from Munich. He is comfortable with the great roles of Verdi and intimate Schubert songs. It can spread the schmaltz of the Viennese operetta as thick as you want. He surely has a top of the charts Christmas album in the hopper.
In person, he can be a charmer. In a rare recital at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Thursday night, Kaufmann revealed an incredibly robust, focused, and particularly effective heroic voice when reduced to a whisper that seems to say, “Yes, I really care.” Attention extends to the text, to each of its words. If the opening of his innermost feelings can be close to the shtick, at least he has them.
All in all, this is a complete tenor package, as we haven’t seen since fall of Plácido Domingo. (In case you’re wondering, Russia hasn’t rolled up the welcome mat and Domingo is in Moscow hosting their Operalia contest.)
The German tenor is also, however, the model of an old-fashioned European classical singer. He and his accomplished accompanist, Helmut Deutsch, keep the white tie and tails of yesteryear, and Kaufmann wins with gusto. His program – sung without an intermission as part of the theater’s COVID-19 protections – was split between Liszt’s songs in the first half and a mix of what he described as his favorite songs, which ranged from obscure to hackneyed. , all European, all sung in German and nothing even close to our time.
Kaufmann put his heart into everything. That’s when he didn’t dispense a deadly breathtaking poison.
“My songs are poisoned,” was the first line he sang, in Liszt’s song of that title. “How could they not be?” Blood is too polite. He shouted it with a sharp tortured chalk on the blackboard that hurt his ears.
It is also the first song from her new recording of Liszt’s Neglected Songs. When it came out a few weeks ago, I started listening through headphones at moderate volume, and immediately took them off. Compared to Joy Crookes’ seductive “Poison” on her new album, “Skin,” Kaufmann seemed to have converted to heavy metal, or, at age 52, had a dejected voice.
In fact, her voice has caused some concern lately. Kaufmann canceled performances in Munich last month due to a tracheal infection. Still, he was able to embark on a recital tour of the United States that included Carnegie Hall in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and Berkeley. The infection may or may not have something to do with the harshness he displayed at full volume on Thursday.
I immediately backed down again when Kaufmann produced his “poison” live – but not for long this time, the song having become theater. Kaufmann made it clear that he meant what he said. In Heine’s text that Liszt wrote, the poet’s heart is assailed by “many snakes / and you, my beloved”. Kaufmann wasn’t kidding.
Liszt’s songs, which Kaufmann in his remarks to the audience attributed to Deutsch for bringing to his attention, are finds. He sang nine of the 20 on the recording. They include wonderfully atmospheric invocations of the Rhine and the great Cologne Cathedral, ringing bells, a Lorelei attracting a sailor to the bottom of the sea, and numerous tales of lost love.
Kaufmann approached everything as a playwright (someone should use it to make an audiobook), a song always at the service of history. He was an oracular minute, another having a personal moment with inner thoughts. He exaggerated, but these are old songs whose feelings can be useful. Even though he was reaching out to those of us who were sitting next to him, he was aiming for the balcony most of the time, as if he was still in Carnegie Hall or the Kennedy Center and not in a theater. a quarter of its size.
When I looked up at the balcony, I understood why. The well-heeled Kaufmann opera lovers around me were predisposed to worship their star, up close in a rare appearance. The floor was packed with students. Few of them could have felt how amazing a great, unamplified voice can be. It was from the rafters that the loudest and most enthusiastic cheers came. And these for an old-fashioned Lied recital on the eve of Liszt’s 210th birthday.
The second half of the program was shamelessly old school. Sentimental chestnuts – Dvorak’s ‘Songs My Mother Taught Me’ and a Brahms Lullaby – were dotted among Schubert’s ‘Der Musensohn’ (Son of the Muses), Schumann’s heartbreaking ‘Widmung’ (Dedication) and and so on.
The formal program ended with the end of the world and Mahler’s most moving song – and in my opinion any songwriter’s – “Ich Bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen” (I am lost in the world). Kaufmann was not lost to the world, but in large part. He allowed Deutsch to set the tone of another world and sang with welcome restraint and feeling.
He wasn’t ready to say goodbye though, not with six reminders yet to deliver. There were no more Liszts, Richard Strauss’ “Nichts” and sweet Viennese operetta that droned us home, the poison two hours earlier appearing to have been just a placebo.
Since then, I have listened to the entire Liszt recording by Kaufmann. It is full of wonders. As for the upcoming Christmas album, if it looks like his Christmas album from last year, it gets worse.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.