Cher Public

Dark vittoria

Jonas KaufmannThere is a self-effacing quality to Jonas Kaufmann’s concert film An Evening with Puccini, filmed at La Scala, Milan, in June 2015 and described here in its February 23 cinema broadcast (consult local listings; a Sony DVD is scheduled for release on April 1). 

Kaufmann has made the composer, as much as his superstar self, the story. He approaches Puccini’s music with obvious respect, and the program is organized to give a sense of a musical journey over 40 years, from Le villi to Turandot. The only Puccini operas not sampled are Bohème and Rondine, although the intermezzo from Suor Angelica must stand for the entire Trittico.

The film begins with a lengthy interview in which Kaufmann charms a female BBC interviewer. This segment seems aimed at neophytes. Predictable things are said about it not being enough to sing all the right notes of Puccini beautifully, one also must sing with emotion, and so on.

The most interesting information to be gleaned from the conversation is that Madama Butterfly was the first opera Kaufmann saw, at the age of seven, and that he is fluent in Italian but wants to sing an unspecified role in Russian, a language he does not speak (Gherman in Pikovaya Dama?)

Kaufmann narrates early segments of the film in English (at least in the version broadcast here, I got the faux-Midwestern version of his English, for example, “da future”). We see him arriving at La Scala, and he informs us that his debut there was in 1999 in Fidelio, as Jaquino (he was to become a celebrated Florestan.)

The concert itself begins with conductor Jochen Rieder, a close contemporary of Kaufmann’s, leading the Filarmonica della Scala through Puccini’s 1882 Preludio sinfonica. The music is accompanied by film footage of Puccini at work and at play (welcome) and biographical narration by the tenor (less so; one wants to hear this lovely piece, which owes something to the Wagner of Lohengrin).

Even a self-effacing divo knows the value of a delayed entrance, and we are almost half an hour in before Kaufmann sings a note, with “Ecco, la casa” from Le villi. In this and the subsequent aria from Edgar (“Orgia, chimera dall`occhio vitreo”), Kaufmann varies his tone and attack to tell the stories of these relatively obscure arias. Although he had stated in his interview that he is unlikely ever to perform either opera on the stage, his caring approach to them suggests that he values them as part of the canon.

The rest of the concert puts the listener on more familiar ground, with two solos each from Manon Lescaut, Tosca, and Fanciulla del West (all operas Kaufmann has sung on stage and been filmed in), and two performances of the inevitable “Nessun dorma” from Turandot.

The second “Nessun dorma,” which is the concert’s final encore, contains a now-famous memory lapse from which Kaufmann recovers quickly. This display of mortality appears only to endear him more to the audience. His low notes are firmer the second time through, and were it not for that bobble, this could have been judged the more confident and overall superior performance.

Ernesto de Curtis’s “Non ti scordar di me” (1912) and Licino Refice’s “Ombra di nube” (1935), also among the encores, are the only non-Puccini music on the program. The Refice song is an unexpected highlight of the concert, the sort of evocative performance that can create a special memory of its time and place for the listener.

Kaufmann leaves the stage several times so that Rieder can conduct instrumental pieces from Le villi, Edgar, Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly, and Suor Angelica. Rieder’s work, with and without the star singer on the stage, suggests that a complete Puccini opera conducted by him might be both praised and criticized for restraint.

His is orderly, lucid music-making, but the heat is turned down low. I noticed this most in the intermezzo from Manon Lescaut, which does not have the sensuous pull and grip that some conductors have brought to it. It is more like a beautiful sight viewed at a distance – the aurora borealis, perhaps.

These several orchestral interludes help to ward off monotony. Puccini is a significant composer worthy of a concert as such this one, and his style progressed over 40 years, but even with a resourceful artist such as Kaufmann at the center, one is still getting tenor aria after tenor aria. Also, not all of these solos are obvious concert pieces.

Some of them, wrenched out of context and lacking a specially composed concert conclusion, seem to end with an ellipsis rather than an exclamation point, pending a response that cannot come (from, for example, Minnie).

Kaufmann is in good present voice, although he has to negotiate a slightly hoarse patch around the passagio where the integrity of his sound is breached; one gets a throaty yelp when he dips into that zone. That aside, his remains an arresting and distinctive sound, and his musicianship and concentration are formidable.

When he concludes “E lucevan le stelle,” the audience prematurely applauds, as audiences often do when a favorite singer closes his mouth, but he remains Cavaradossi (albeit in formalwear) until the orchestra has had its full say. Only then does he become a singer obviously pleased his performance has gone well.

Video director Brian Large has several decades of experience in filming classical concerts. He has long been criticized, in his concert and opera work, for an overreliance on the close-up. It is true that at times he takes the viewer closer to Kaufmann’s face than anyone other than Kaufmann’s intimate partner or his dermatologist needs to be.

But he is musically astute in his shooting of the orchestra, and there is a great slow pan during the Angelica intermezzo, in which we keep going back farther and farther, higher and higher, until we have a view from the uppermost level of La Scala.

A shortage of good tenors has been a problem, or at least a perceived one, at various points in the history of opera. It does not seem so long ago that too much was riding on poor Rolando Villazón to be “the new Domingo.” It was only a little longer ago that the late Salvatore Licitra was stepping in for the aged Pavarotti and being trumpeted as the best hope of a new millennium.

Today, I look around and see a lot with which to be pleased in the tenor ranks, with a broad range of repertoire in good hands. Flórez, Camarena, Brownlee, Hymel, Grigolo, Calleja, Polenzani, Beczala, Skorokhodov, Vogt, Botha, and Skelton all are singing as well as they ever will, often quite very well indeed. Vargas, Alagna, and Álvarez still have much to offer in the right repertoire, on the right night. Michael Fabiano, Russell Thomas, and Andrea Carè are among the promising names in ascent. None of these lists is intended to be exhaustive, and you may be able to add names of your own.

Kaufmann’s professional career goes back more than 20 years, to the early 1990s, but only in the last decade has he achieved international stardom. As I watched this film (and I leave it to the reader to decide whether it will repeat well enough to be worth owning on DVD), it occurred to me that the most sought-after male star in opera, the one who can sell recordings and get his concert shown in movie theaters, the one whose cancellations are a source of dread and speculation and rumor, the one who has to tell newspapers that in fact he is not dating Madonna, happens also to be a musician whose intelligence and discernment match his ambition.

Sometimes, even in opera, things work out well.

  • manou
    • armerjacquino

      He’d already taken over the rest of the run, is that right? I know it’s him I’m seeing today fortnight.

      • manou

        Yes -- Villazon was originally slated for only three performances (slated has a prophetic undertone here), and Pretti is doing the other ones with Agresta and Cabell. The Cabell performances have Tassis Christoyannis (?) instead of Kelsey.

        I had made a point to book for a Villazonless show -- and now they all are.

        It is very sad, really. His concert with Bartoli was the last straw.

        • Cicciabella

          I understand that Villazon was sick on the night he performed with Bartoli in London. He really should have rescheduled. I saw their programme in Amsterdam and, although I could find fault with several aspects of his performance, he was not the disaster that the London reviews wrote about. I have heard him on another occasion when he performed with a bad cold and that was an excruciating experience, for performers and audience alike. I think the recent broadcast of South Pole from Munich represents his current vocal state better than the Bartoli concert in London.

          • manou

            Ciccia -- there was no announcement that Villazon was unwell at the concert. It was sad and cringe-making to sit through -- some clever people did not return after the interval.

            • Cicciabella

              Rupert: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/classical-music/cecilia-bartoli-and-rolando-villazon-barbican-review-positively/

              He also trashes Bartoli, which I don’t really understand. I think her voice is well-preserved, although you can’t compare it to her youthful self. Her Desdemona (Rossini) in Amsterdam was really touching, and beautifully sung. Maybe she was under the weather too, or thrown off by Villazon being ill. Based on the reviews I’ve read (and the concert I heard), London was the worst night of the tour. Shame.

            • manou

              I stand corrected!

              I really don’t remember any announcement beforehand, but I am losing quite a number of brain cells, so that’s probably why.

              Bartoli was incomparably better than Villazon, but that’s not saying much. It seems that they somehow dragged each other down and the whole thing was just embarrassing in the extreme.

              The Barbican audience lapped it up.

            • Cocky Kurwenal

              I do recall the announcement about Villazon’s illness being made, precisely because such an announcement has been made EVERY SINGLE TIME I’ve ever seen him (it’s not always illness to be fair, sometimes it’s allergies). So call me a cold hearted cynic, but I just took it as an entirely expected attempt to excuse what he knew was going to be touch and go.

              The problems he was having went way beyond those a cold could cause, and were mostly of a different nature than those a cold would cause in most singers. I agree it was embarrassing in the extreme -- I simply couldn’t look at him when he was trying to sing.

  • gustave of montreal

    Singing Puccini sells. No other artistic values in this.

    *g

  • Lohengrin

    Next concert-DVD with Kaufmann will be The Boston Inauguration of Andis Nelsons (Sept. 2014), coming soon. Still available the Wagner-Anniversary-Concert (2013) from Semperoper Dresden, conductor Ch.Thielemann.

    Presumably the Puccini will be the bestseller…………..

  • Will

    “The only Puccini operas not sampled are Bohème and Rondine, although the intermezzo from Suor Angelica must stand for the entire Trittico.”

    I don’t understand this. If the Angelica intermezzo stands in for the entire Trittico, that means Il Tabarro is not “sampled” — there is a dandy tenor in it that should be just perfect for Jonas’s dark, somewhat muscular tenor.

    • Lohengrin

      JK sang Ruggero 2004 in ROH with AG.

    • The Poet Lenski

      He does a very good Hai Ben Raggione on the Puccini album. I’d love to see him do the role but it’s unlikely.

  • Lady Abbado

    Here’s a photo with them in 2004 at the ROH (but the music you’ll hear is from the EMI recording with Roberto!):

  • leboyfriend

    Any bets on the “Russian role” being Lensky?

    • Porgy Amor

      I thought Gherman more likely. Kaufmann is a Siegmund, a Ramerrez, and a scheduled Otello, and Gherman is another stop on that route. Lensky would have come some years earlier if it were to come. But I could certainly be wrong.

      • Krunoslav

        I met Jonas some years back in Zurich and, as Russian things interest me (no surprise) we spoke about Ghermann, which he said he wanted to sing eventually.

      • I, too, hope that he sings Gherman. He certainly has the voice for it. But also, I find that character can be so whiny that it needs a truly charismatic/handsome tenor to pull of successfully. Otherwise, his whole story becomes just too pathetic. If the audience is attracted to Gherman, then at least we can see Liza’s point of view and care about him even as he single-mindedly raves about those damn three cards.

        • Porgy Amor

          Above all, you need someone who can portray passion and a madness that gradually takes over. And, yes, charisma helps. In a very boring Barcelona performance, Mischa Didyk is very handsome by the standards of operatic tenors, but he’s a block of wood on stage, so who can care?

          The most riveting performance of the role I’ve ever seen, within the best stage production, is still Yuri Marusin’s in the Glyndebourne production of Graham Vick. Some perceptive viewer here described Marusin’s Gherman as a “dark angel,” and that’s perfect. But it would be understating it to say that his singing will not be to all tastes. He intentionally flats a lot, and that’s just the start of it.

          • Porgy Amor

            “Misha,” rather.

  • armerjacquino

    *SHAMELESS PLUG*

    While you’re checking your local cinema listings for JK, you might want to see if your local cinema is showing the NT Live AS YOU LIKE IT tomorrow.

    I hear one of the Forest Lords is especially good.

    • Forest Lords sounds like a type of Girl Scout Cookie.

      • armerjacquino

        That’s very much how I’m playing him.

      • Krunoslav

        Here I thought Forest was Traci Lord’s adopted son.

        • armerjacquino

          That’s very much how I played him.

    • Rackon

      Armer, As You Like It shows in March in USA. We will watch for you March 20!

      • armerjacquino

        Hurray! There are some US cinemas showing it live, I think, but it’s probably a hard sell at 2pm/1pm/12pm on a Thursday…

  • leftcoastlady

    Saw the La Scala concert last night. Have heard E Lucevan… many times but this is the first time I had tears in my eyes at the finish. So enjoyed watching the musicians’ faces as the evening progressed. After Ombra di nube steadily poker-faced horn player broke into smiles, timpanist shaking his head in enjoyment. A very warm evening in that house. Glad to hear there is a DVD of the Boston inaugural gala in the works. On YouTube I’ve seen a clip of Kaufmann and Opolais roaring through Tu, tu amore under the watchful eye of her husband who didn’t seem to mind the hot goings-on going on right next to him.

    • Krunoslav

      “Have heard E Lucevan… many times but this is the first time I had tears in my eyes at the finish.”

      Here is the first “E lucevan” that brought tears to my eyes.

  • -Ed.

    It’s as if time stands still.

  • Tamerlano

    You weren’t kidding about the flatting…holy shit.