Its a very long way, musically speaking, from full-blown verismo to Wagnerian narrative, but no other tenor, active or archived, makes the journey as convincingly as Jonas Kaufmann. Limprovviso from Andrea Chnier needs not only ringing high B flats: it should be persuasive rather than hectoring, impassioned rather than overblown all this and more Kaufmann achieved here. He sang it with a fervour which swept you away on the poets indignant passion rather than battering the life out of it; even Corelli did not grab you with such urgency at Non cognosiete amor and coming from me, thats saying something.
The Gralserzhlung from Lohengrin was equally powerful in an entirely different way. Kaufmanns special quality, one he shares with other truly great singers, is his mastery of quiet, intimate narrative, voiced with such intensity that it creates an astonishing sense of anticipation for each word. Its almost a truism to say that this is the art of the Lieder singer, but only someone so gifted in recital could give lines like so kostbar, als auf Erden nichts bekannt such poignancy. As for Vom Gral ward ich zu euch daher gesandt with its eloquent determination, and the hushed fervour of Taube you could almost hear the intaken breath of thousands.
Kaufmanns singing of his opening aria, Cielo e Mar was easily the equal dare I say, the superior of Carusos. Please feel free to line up for your pot shot I can take it. From the superbly confident voicing of that cruelly exposed first phrase, to the exquisite mesa di voce on the final high B flat, this was great singing by anyones measure. This combination of dramatic power, incisive diction, tremulous sensitivity and even emission of beautiful tone was also evident in the Flower Song excellent French and a mesmerizing Winterstrme.
The evening was infested with the swathes of orchestral nicky-nacky-noo which usually bedevil this sort of concert even, can you believe it the Dance of the Hours being trotted out. There was no need for these pieces, if the aim was to showcase the RPO under Jochen Rieder, since he directed them to accompany the singer with sensitivity and finesse, especially in Wagner.
One could amuse oneself during these interludes by attempting to make sense of the programme, so badly written that it was grimly funny. Did you know, for example, that there is a composer called Brahm? Or that Enzo in La Gioconda is Lauras mother? Or that Winterstrme is a duet? Or that this evening was Kaufmanns UK debut on the concert platform? (Not) Or that Siegmund and Sieglinde unwittingly commit incest? Id say that what the music tells us in the closing bars of Act I of Walkre is just about as witting as it comes. May the blood of the Wlsungs flow!
Of the four encores demanded by a vociferous audience, the most remarkable was Vesti la giubba is there anything that this man cannot sing with more gut-wrenching abandon, more heart-wringing anguish and yet more telling subtlety than any other tenor? Now that someone seems to have introduced him to a razor, hes looking good, too, despite the drool-inducing braces. One can only hope that the ROH will try to persuade him to add well, anything to what hes already sung there, but Lohengrin and Bacchus would be ideal. He has it all.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk