New York, NY – When we are bombarded daily by vapid music videos, computerized auto-tune, forgetful elevator music, and pop music with lyrics from the 99-cent or less bin, it is easy to forget the music’s timeless purpose: communication. In a world where music is “enhanced” by extravagant video effects, numbing amplification, and marketing to the lowest common denominator, it is a pleasant system shock when a singer has the talent and confidence to present their soul with nothing separating them from the audience but space. In mainstream music, we have Adele whose raw and imperfect voice sails over the two-dimensional, monotony of her auto-tuned contemporaries. Opera singers aren’t amplified at all, but the theatrical atmosphere, dramatic situation, sets, costumes, and orchestras naturally create a fourth wall, making the audience member more of a voyeur than a participant in the emotional discourse.
On October 30, the stage of the Metropolitan Opera house was stripped of its usual gargantuan grandeur and pared down to just three things: a pianist, a singer, and a wooden shell to aid in the projection of sound. Jonas Kaufmann, who excels in the spinto and dramatic tenor repertory worldwide, put aside the Wagner and the Puccini to give the New York audience a refreshingly direct, honest, nuanced, and nostalgically old-fashioned Lieder recital. His partner in music was the sensitive and poetic pianist Helmut Deutsch.
Yes, Jonas Kaufmann is attractive: dark, Roma-like features, warm, piercing eyes, and an endearing and easy smile. And that’s all I will say about that, for while Kaufmann’s good looks have undoubtedly aided his career, they are only a small part of the equation of his success. The star of this recital was his luxurious, satin tenor. Some choose to describe the onxy-tinged power in his lower and middle voices as “baritonal,” but it is in fact the mark of a true spinto tenor. His voice is crowned with an effortlessly powerful and round top. Threaded to a faultless technique and professional confidence, Kaufmann’s voice has all the right ingredients for superb storytelling.
Unfortunately, the monotonous recital program chosen by Mr. Kaufmann did not take full advantage of his nor Mr. Deutsch’s nuanced artistry. The four sets of Lieder by Liszt, Mahler, DuParc, and Richard Strauss were stuck on the same harmony: Romantic melancholy, lush textures, long phrases, expanded adagios, that blended into two hours of indistinguishable languor. Thankfully, Kaufmann and Deutsch never wandered into the type of saccharine self-indulgence that such music can fall victim to. They provided us with direct, organic interpretations of these little vignettes, subtly reminding us that a Lieder recital should be an enhanced poetry reading.
The Liszt songs, given the infrequency with which they are performed, were indispensable. Kaufmann’s handling of the treacherously high tessitura of “Am Rhein, im heilign Ströme,” was a lesson in emotional exposure through technical mastery. Liszt certainly lends himself to histrionics, but Kaufmann has enough raw talent to rely on that he need not resort to exaggeration to communicate effectively. The songs by Henri DuParc, on the other hand, should have been replaced by songs by Bizet, Capet, Poulenc, or even Milhaud! They are beautiful pieces, but there was enough familiar repertoire on the program which afforded the risk of something more adventurous than yet another “Chanson triste.”
Mahler’s Fünf Rückert Lieder was the highlight of the recital. Kaufmann’s sultry tone contains the right of amount of tears and sadness to enliven Mahler’s ubiquitous melancholy with something more engaging than “I am sad.” The achingly long lines of “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft,” and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” cascaded through the Metropolitan Opera house. Kaufmann’s gentle pianissimi are something to marvel at, especially in a male voice of such unashamed power and virility. No one caresses consonants with as much love and intention as Jonas Kaufmann.
Having recorded nearly 30 of Strauss’s Lieder for a 2006 recital album, Kaufmann seemed most at home in the Lieder by this composer which closed the recital. As in the Mahler, Kaufmann’s voice savored Strauss’s marvelously long and stratospheric phrases. Unlike the Mahler, and every other set, Kaufmann and Deutsch offered a variety of songs ranging from the charming and humorous (“Schlechtes Wetter,”) introspective and tender (“Morgen,”) and passionately tempestuous (“Heimliche Aufforderung and Cäcilie.).
Despite the lack of variety in repertoire, one must applaud Kaufmann’s confidence and cool security in this repertoire. In a day where dilettantism is misnamed as versatility (Hello, Anna Netrebko and Renee Fleming), it is a rare pleasure to see and hear an artist whose love and diligence can project over the footlights and give warmth and humanity to a house as cavernous as the Metropolitan Opera.
Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera