“…after singing Verdi, it is much easier to sing Wagner, as the composer intended, with Italian legato.” In that one phrase, Jonas Kaufmann sums up his art, one of which the much-misused term ‘unique’ may truly be used. There are great spinto and dramatic tenors for Verdi, and there are a few good heldentenors for Wagner; but there is only one tenor who is able to perform the music of both with equal lustre, the key being as the composer intended. It is also what Kaufmann does not do, that marks him out as the tenor of our time: he never postures, sobs or pulls an aria about, he never bulldogs his way through the passagio, he never requires intrusive aspirates to help him through divisions – and only once on this occasion did he give in to a moment of indulgence, with the ‘Wälse!’ of ‘Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater’ from Die Walküre so thrillingly taken and held that you could hardly blame him for hanging on to it for just that little bit longer than anyone else could without collapsing in a heap.
The all-Verdi first half provided so many object lessons in singing that it’s hard to choose the best examples; I have to go with the clean attack, the surpassingly beautiful legato line, the wonderful piano and the surge of power without melodrama at ‘Ah! mi tradia’ in ‘Oh! Fede negar potessi…’ from Luisa Miller although the (literally) breathtaking control of phrasing, the even emission of golden, mellifluous tone and the piercingly wonderful diminuendo in Gabriele’s aria from Simon Boccanegra ran it pretty close. The arias from Don Carlo and La forza del destino were equally sublime – no other tenor sings ‘Io la vidi a suo sorriso’ (Don Carlo) with Kaufmann’s sweetness of tone, finely controlled legato line and expressive power – Domingo comes close, but only that.
Wagner made up the second half, with superb performances of ‘Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater’ and ‘Amfortas! Die Wunde!’ framing a less well chosen piece in ‘Am stillen Herd.’ The last of these is an annoying extract because you want to sing – or have someone else do so – the answering ‘Ein guter Meister! Doch lang schon tot!’ in response. However, the Walküre and Parsifal scenes were sublime, a standing ovation deserved just for that second ‘Wälse!’ and the passion and ineffable tenderness of Parsifal’s outburst ideally blended.
Four encores were demanded by a somewhat rowdy audience, including two of the Wesendonck Lieder sung with elegance and understated emotion – Träume especially an example of Kaufmann’s skill in creating a mood in which the listener is completely enveloped. ‘Winterstürme wicken dem Wonnemond’ reminded us again that this is the Siegmund of our time, but perhaps the finest singing of the whole evening came in Macduff’s aria from Verdi’s Macbeth: ‘O figli miei… Ah! la paterna mano.’ Everything we mean when we say ‘Verdi tenor’ was here – fluid legato, passionate delivery, wonderful control of dynamics, luscious ‘italianità.’ Perhaps someone will tempt him to take on the role in a staging – Kaufmann in a kilt, now that would be something to savour.
Jochen Rieder coaxed some fine playing from the Philharmonia on occasion, although the overtures were taken as an opportunity to chat by many in the audience; of course they probably would not have done so if they had been given some aria texts and translations in the programme, instead of so many pictures of our smouldering hero. Ok, he’s cute, but most of us would prefer just the one shot, thanks all the same, and perhaps those texts and some notes which actually make sense, as opposed to what we got which was convoluted plot summaries, an example of which was the one about Simon Boccanegra in which it appears that Albiani (a baritone) sings ‘O inferno.’ It was an improvement on last time – who can forget the hilarity of ‘Brahm’ not to mention the Wälsung twins committing incest without knowing it – but still not anywhere near what an audience, not to mention an artist, has a right to expect.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.