Jonas Kaufmann: The Verdi Album (CD review)

Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Coro del Teatro Municipale di Piancenza; Pier Giorgio Morandi, Orchestra dell-Opera di Parma. Sony Classical 88765492042.

Twenty-odd years ago, there was no doubt who the greatest tenors in the world were. Domingo, Pavarotti, and Carreras were riding so high that they united as The Three Tenors, further solidifying their dominance in the operatic world. Before them, we had tenors like Carlo Bergonzi, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Nicolai Gedda, and Mario Del Monaco, the fellows I grew up with in the old LP days. Now, things are different. The record companies don’t seem to be producing as many full-length operas as they used to, and there do not appear to be any clear-cut kings of the hill in the world of tenors. So I suppose that German tenor Jonas Kaufmann has as much a shot at the title as anyone.

His credentials: Kaufmann has a fine tenor voice, not really a lyric tenor, but having more weight, something of a cross between a spinto tenor and a dramatic tenor. He’s also blessed with handsome good looks, with stylishly long hair on his head and a stylish stubble on his face. If this were the Fifties, Hollywood would snatch him up for a romantic musical. As of this writing, he is in his vocal prime, being about forty-four years old, he’s been performing on the world stage since 1995, and he has over a dozen record albums to his credit.

But does that make him the greatest tenor currently before the public? Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on your taste in tenors, I suppose. Anyway, I don’t have nearly enough experience listening to opera to make any fair evaluation of Kaufmann as a singer, so I’ll limit myself to some general observations about the twelve Verdi selections he sings on this album. For instance, it’s easy to hear the man’s voice has range, power, and flexibility. It’s also easy to hear his voice is slightly coarser and deeper than a lot of tenors; thus, the characterization above that he is more of a dramatic than a lyric tenor. Nevertheless, it seems to work reasonably well in these arias, despite their being in Italian and not the man’s native German. (Most of Kaufmann’s early success has come in Wagner.) My only serious quibble is that the program features mainly Verdi standards, things most of us, even we opera novices, already have on disc by our own favorite tenors. I dunno; maybe this collection will grow on me if I give it a chance. As it is, I’m not sure it represents Kaufmann at his best.

So, the album begins with one of Verdi’s most recognizable creations, “La donna e mobile” from Rigoletto, which you can listen to below. It's a good song to begin the proceedings since it's not only familiar, it has all the wham and pizzazz you could want. It's the vocal equivalent of an overture, a curtain raiser, and Kaufmann belts it out with authority.

Next up is a number more to my liking: "Celeste Aida" from Aida, although for me it still needs a lighter, airier touch. That said, Kaufmann produces some welcome vocal contrasts, handling the piece neither too gently nor too robustly.

To repeat, I know next to nothing about opera. Yet I sense more of the baritone in Kaufmann's voice than the tenor. Not that this is a bad thing. It demonstrates the man's vocal range, which is clearly quite wide and stable.

And so it goes through the program, with selections from Un Ballo in Maschera, Il Trovatore, Luisa Miller, Simon Boccanegra, Don Carlo, La Forza del Destino, I Masnadieri, and Otello. There's quite a lot of different material in here, familiar or not, and Kaufmann makes the best of it. I wish I could say the same for the orchestral accompaniment, though, which seems a bit thin and flabby to me.

Favorites? The aforementioned "Celeste Aida"; "Di quella pira" from Il Trovatore, only because the piece is so ingrained in the basic repertoire, and because Kaufmann carries it out with such theatrical flair; "Quandole le sere al placido" from Luisa Miller because it's so very romantic, and Kaufmann sings it with such heartfelt enthusiasm; "Dio, che nell' alma infondere" from Don Carlo because Kaufmann's voice sounds so good in combination with Franco Vassallo's baritone; and "Niun me tema" from Otello because of the passion Kaufmann expresses in these closing passages from the opera.

I think most folks are going to like what they hear on the album. No doubt, it will please Kaufmann's fans. How much it may impress die-hard opera lovers, however, I couldn't guess.

Sony Classical recorded Mr. Kaufmann at the Auditorium Niccolo Paganini, Parma, Italy in March, 2013. The sound is big and bold, a lot like Kaufmann's voice. The voice is well out front, clean and clear, with a fine sense of bloom. The orchestral accompaniment seems to fade closer and farther away with the changing dynamics, but it's not objectionable. Occasionally, the voice tends to get a bit bright, almost harsh, like, obviously, on big fortes and climaxes, but again this is not particularly objectionable, and in any case some speaker systems may mitigate the situation. In all, this is probably the kind of pop-like sound that most listeners expect, and a sound that probably complements most home playback systems.

To listen to a selection from this album, click here:

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa