Can you believe that “L’Opera” is tenor Jonas Kaufmann’s first and only album fully dedicated to French Opera?
I had to look at his collection of CDs to make sure that statement wasn’t actually true, but it is. His 2007 album for Decca, “Romantic Arias” is a mix of different music and does include some of the big hits from the French repertoire, but his 2017 album, is effectively the first time he gives such a major part of his repertoire its own time to shine.
It is truly hard to believe when you look at Kaufmann’s trajectory. Gounod, Berlioz, Massenet, Bizet. He has sung major operas from all of these major composers and in some cases, namely “Werther” and Don José in “Carmen,” he has become the finest interpreter of his time.
So, was it worth the wait? In a word, yes, as is usually the case with Kaufmann. And yet in some ways, it is a bit of a disappointing album.
Not Many Surprises
Before the pitchforks come out, let’s put things into a bit of perspective. Kaufmann is indisputably one of the finest artists of his generation and might just be the greatest tenor in quite some time. He has impeccable technique vocally and his interpretations are always so full of calculated surprises. Few people can pull off what he can in any given aria or role. Moreover, he has a wide range of repertoire, conquering some of the greatest roles, and then some. His discography is fascinating with the tenor constantly exploring different kinds of repertoire. How many tenors do you know that have pulled off a Verdi album, a Wagner album, two dedicated to Schubert, and a few with more popular Italian songs and operetta? And then earlier this year, he took out a daring recording of Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” in which he sang both vocal parts!
What made some of the more “typical” albums, such as the Verdi one, for example, all the more intriguing was that he managed to toss in some rather rare passages in there amidst the more popular hits.
So then to see him put out a French album that really is lacking in that sense of discovery is actually a bit of a disappointment from a repertoire standpoint. We get all the classic French arias from the classic operas, mixed in with three duets, and then a few other pieces that we rarely hear from “Le Roy d’Ys” or “Mignon,” and even “Manon (the best of the batch),” though none of them are quite as exciting as an extended version of “In Fernem Land” in his Wagner album” or the epic heroic cry of “Destatevi, o pietre” from “I Masnadieri” in the Verdi album. I suppose this might be a matter of taste, of course, and might be the result of coming to expect more innovation from such an insightful artist.
The Great Stuff
But this gripe aside, the real question that beckons is whether Kaufmann’s artistry is as great as ever.
And on that point, there can be no complaint. In fact, he is quite irresistible. I listened to this album three times before writing this review, the fourth coming as these very words were typed out. The repertoire might not surprise anyone, but the melodies and Kaufmann’s imaginative interpretations are impossible to turn away from, demanding to be listened to again and again.
Take the opener of the set, “Ah, leve-toi soleil” from Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” the darkened timbre we are so used to suddenly softened and made delicate. It’s still Kaufmann, but his coloring here immediately makes us feel like we are listening to a young man.
Or his “Ô Paradis” from “L’Africaine” which comes later in the album, where Kaufmann kicks things off with a gentle sound before suddenly transforming the character into something rougher and more incendiary.
Even the “Roi d’Ys” that I complained about earlier is wonderfully sung, Kaufmann’s rhythm precision and brightness of sound providing a major contrast to other pieces that surround it.
In “Merci, doux crepuscule!” from “La Damnation de Faust,” we get the tenor at his most free and rhapsodic, the tempi constantly stretched to allow him the ability to create a sense of longing, the sound dipping to sweet whispers. Halfway through the aria, we get the voice growing in strength on the words “Seigneur,” the longing externalized more and more. Berlioz’s music is a far cry from the passionate outbursts of something like “Pourquoi me reveiller” from Massenet’s“Werther,” but Kaufmann manages to produce a similarly emotional catharsis with the more subtle score. Bertrand de Billy’s postlude to this aria is one of the most fascinating musical moments of the album, the scurrying strings slowly fading away, out attention fully on them to the last breath of sound.
The final track of the CD is from “Les Troyens,” an opera we have yet to hear the tenor perform fully. Its juxtaposition with the “Damnation” track is quite revelatory of Berlioz’s contrasting style and Kaufmann pulls out all the stops that he has been showcasing throughout the album. His voice uses all of its resources and it ultimately feels like a virtuosic and fitting ending to the album.
His best tracks are, unsurprisingly, from operas that he has dominated, such as “Pourquoi me reveiller” from “Werther” and “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” from “Carmen.” He’s recorded these arias before, but the depth of interpretation here shows his deep understanding of the character. The former passage from Massenet’s opera is allowed to start well before the aria proper, allowing Kaufmann some vocal contrast, his singing delicate and fragile at first before plunging into the aria with abandon. It’s exhilarating, to say the least and you can feel the intensity ramp up throughout with Kaufmann’s gradual crescendo throughout the aria.
The “Carmen” aria is also started before the traditional wind solo, allowing the tenor to start the aria with greater aggression and then gradually go in the inverse direction from “Pourquoi me reveiller,” the intensity ramping up but the sound growing gentler all the way through the climactic B flat, which just hangs as a question.
Sharing the Spotlight
One of the great things about Kaufmann’s albums is that he is always willing to let other superstars join in the limelight with him. He worked with Kristine Opolais in his Puccini album and sang with Eva-Maria Westbroek in his Verismo showcase, among others.
Here he shares the spotlight with two great operatic superstars. First up is baritone Ludovic Tézier in the famed duet from “Les Pêcheurs de perles.” It’s a wonderful mixture of voices, the two singers’ darker hued timbres matching perfectly together in a way few other singers can manage. At times, we might have time distinguishing one from the other, but it helps in creating this sense of unified friendship, two people losing one another in a relationship.
As for the two “Manon” duets shared with Sonya Yoncheva, Kaufmann and the Bulgarian soprano provide perfect foils to one another. This is particularly true of their second duet, the famed Saint-Suplice moment. While the soprano is gentle and alluring in her vocal portray, Kaufmann is aggressive and virile, slowly growing gentle until the two let go in a passionate outburst. The first passage from “Manon” shines a spotlight on the tenor, climaxing in a rendition of “En fermant les yeux,” the voice sweet and serene until rising to a disembodied high note.
Bertrand de Billy and the Bayerisches Staatsoper are also major players, providing the superstar singer with the ideal partner. As noted, there are many arias that are framed with orchestral introductions or postludes that give the conductor and his ensemble the ample space to shine, and they always do.
So yes, this album is incredible, as is usually the case with anything related to the famous German tenor. The repertoire is not all that surprising, but its execution is world class and will demand repeat listenings.