There is a simple elegance to the single-composer recital album format. For the listener in the mood for, say, Puccini, it’s a chance to delve into his music without any pesky interruptions by those other guys like Verdi or Massenet. And if one is also in the mood for a particular singer’s art, then the choice is even more straightforward.
For the singer, it is an opportunity to showcase and explore the variety and nuance that a single composer offers to his/her voice type, while also displaying his/her own skill at presenting a varied recital experience within narrow confines.
Those same qualities also bring with them certain pitfalls. What if the composer doesn’t offer a whole lot of nuance or variety for the singer? And what if the singer isn’t able to do enough to differentiate between the musical selections?
Jonas Kaufmann’s latest CD, titled Nessun Dorma: The Puccini Album—not to be confused with The Age of Puccini, a compilation album which caused the tenor to take his protestations to social media—features splendid singing from the star tenor but also displays some of the limitations which come from the all-Puccini format.
The programming here strives to be somewhat atypical. Yes, we have the world’s most popular aria, more sinned against than sinning (thank you, Simon Cowell), but absent are Puccini’s runners-up, “E lucevan le stelle” and “Che gelida manina”. In their place, we get rarities from Puccini’s first two operas, Le Villi and Edgar. And instead of a predictable series of arias, we also get two duets (with soprano Kristine Opolais as the guest of honour).
The album starts off strongly with four selections from Manon Lescaut. After a solid “Donna non vidi mai”, we get the second-act love duet. Opolais and Kaufmann have already sung the opera together at Covent Garden and will be reprising their roles in a new production at the Met later this season.
A fine singing actress, Opolais’ rise to fame in recent years has coincided with the gradual loss of her vocal bloom. The voice is still attractive but not exactly pretty. Here, she is most convincing at conveying the urgent desperation of Manon’s desire for all that glitters. Kaufmann matches her intensity and the two deliver a properly passionate account of their duet.
Des Grieux is a great fit for Kaufmann. He is able to conquer the role’s high tessitura while bringing the necessary heft of the voice the role sometimes demands. He is appropriately indignant in “Ah! Manon mi tradisce” and emotionally powerful in “Presto! In fila!… Non v’avvicinate! No, pazzo son,” a real highlight.
Opolais returns for “O soave fanciulla”. Neither singer sounds ideal in this music though both sing with great delicacy in the second half of the duet. Throughout, I kept thinking that their voices would be on better display in the corresponding duet from Madama Butterfly, or better yet, La fanciulla del West. But I suppose the notion of releasing a Puccini album without a single selection from La Bohème was out of the question.
On the final declarations of “amor”, Kaufmann takes the harmony as written but his hushed whisper is barely audible. Perhaps in response to Kaufmann’s extreme approach, Opolais sings with a half-voice that, while producing an appropriate effect, sounds sort of fake. I doubt either singer would attempt to sing like this in a theatre. It would have been preferable to achieve an off-stage effect here rather than having the singers scale their voices down so artificially.
Puccini’s lighter music is not always at home in Kaufmann’s voice. He is scrupulously musical throughout but the forte passages of arias like Tosca’s “Recondita armonia” or “Addio, fiorito” from Madama Butterfly can be too muscular. I was reminded of JJ’s review of Karita Mattila’s Manon Lescaut at the Met, observing that her high C at the end of the Gavotte sounded more appropriate for Strauss’s Elektra than Puccini’s anti-heroine.
Similarly, when expressing Cavarodossi’s love for Tosca, Kaufmann’s trumpeting tone would better serve Otello’s “Esultate” or Radames surrendering his sword to Ramfis. On the other hand, while no one might think of casting him in Gianni Schicchi¸ Kaufmann’s rendition of Rinuccio’s spirited aria is given with such winning enthusiasm that I was glad for its inclusion.
Happily, we get more of Kaufmann’s Dick Johnson than the two minutes that make up “Ch’ella mi creda”, with the tenor offering up the “Risparmiate lo scherno” which directly precedes it as well as the second act’s “Una parola sola!… Or son sei mesi”. He is completely at home in this music, nailing the pathos with which Puccini’s invests the music. He is similarly satisfying in Luigi’s aria from Il Tabarro.
Kaufmann is committed to every measure of music he sings and pays particular attention to the two rarities on the program, Le Villi’s “Ei giunge!… Torna ai felici dì” and “Orgia, chimera dall’occhio vitreo” from Edgar. The latter begins with an achingly beautiful clarinet solo and both selections display Puccini’s abundant melodic and dramatic gifts.
While Puccini’s musical inspiration is never in doubt, he doesn’t give his tenors a whole lot of variety. Like most opera composers, he gives his sopranos music of greater variety and complexity than his tenors. His characterisation of the tenor roles typically finds two modes of expression: the ardour of the young lover, or the anguish of the man who yearns for something better than his lot in life. Kaufmann does his best to present a range of expression, drawing upon his superb control of dynamics. But he is less successful at varying his vocal colouring, especially at full cry.
With the selections given mostly in chronological order, the album ends with Calaf, another good fit for Kaufmann’s spinto tenor. He is appropriately doleful in “Non piangere, Liù” and gets to close out the album with a triumphant “vincero”. For me, “Nessun dorma” almost inevitably becomes about a show-boating high B at the end, with most tenors not able to do anything distinctive with the aria.
Perhaps it was the very lack of a thrilling high B that allowed Placido Domingo to give my favourite rendition of the aria, beautifully evoking the dreamy mood of the piece, aided by sensitive support from Herbert von Karajan. Kaufmann doesn’t try to do anything unique with the aria except for singing in long, measured breaths and rising heroically to the aria’s climax.
Antonio Pappano provides sympathetic and idiomatic accompaniment throughout and the musicians of the Accademia Nazionale Di Santa Cecilia show that, though they are a symphony orchestra, they have Italian blood running through their veins. Complaints that the orchestral sound is mixed too loudly are not without merit. Personally, I don’t mind the even balance between singers and orchestra, but there’s no doubt that, in the climax of the Manon Lescaut duet, the singers are disappointingly drowned out by the orchestra.
Sony has lavished generous musical resources on this album. The Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale Di Santa Cecilia is brought in just to provide some crowd murmurs just before “Ch’ella mi creda” and the off-stage chorus for “Nessun dorma”.
Bass Antonio Pirozzi offers Timur’s single line in “Non piangere, Liù” and the Sacristan’s lines in “Recondita armonia” (though he bows out on the final line so Kaufmann can have the spotlight). Baritone Massimo Simeoli similarly provides a single line as Jack Rance and Sharpless’s music in “Recondita armonia”.
All in all, this is a most enjoyable album displaying a tenor in full command of his considerable resources. If not all of Puccini’s music suits him perfectly—he simply lacks the sweetness of tone for the lighter roles—he does his best to compensate by giving the music a full range of dynamics and utter musical and dramatic involvement. “Vincero!” indeed.