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.