It’s 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. ‘L’improvviso’ from Andrea Chénier 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 poet’s 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, that’s saying something.
The ‘Gralserzählung’ from Lohengrin was equally powerful in an entirely different way. Kaufmann’s 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. It’s 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.
Kaufmann’s singing of his opening aria, ‘Cielo e Mar’ was easily the equal – dare I say, the superior – of Caruso’s. 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 anyone’s 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 ‘Winterstürme’.
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 Royal Philharmonic Orchestra 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 Laura’s mother? Or that ‘Winterstürme’ is a duet? Or that this evening was Kaufmanns UK debut on the concert platform? (Not) Or that Siegmund and Sieglinde “unwittingly” commit incest? I’d say that what the music tells us in the closing bars of Act I of Walküre is just about as ‘witting’ as it comes. May the blood of the Wälsungs 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, he’s 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 he’s 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