Thursday, December 22, 2016

La Dolce Vita with... Jonas Kaufmann?

Goethe, with more brooding than this album provides (Tischbein, 1787)
Germans have been semi-enviously fascinated by the land of lemon trees at least since Goethe, so in some ways, Jonas Kaufmann's latest album is unsurprising. He's been on record, since long before press tours were dreamt of, as enjoying Italy's music, language, and culture. So, sure: why not an album of popular song? It should be no surprise at all that Kaufmann's musicianship is never facile, or merely saccharine. He delivers complex lines of text and melody virtually without accompaniment. His voice not only caresses and croons, but sparks with anger, darkens with desire. Asher Fisch delivers deluxe accompaniment with the orchestra of the Teatro Massimo di Palermo. The melodies themselves may be predictable, but the orchestra is never less than attentive, and gives nuanced detail where it is possible to do so.

Once one gets beyond the cover design, with its font that could have been taken from a deliberately retro New York pizzeria, stereotype is less prevalent. Still, the album is not particularly adventurous. It doesn't explore uncharted territory. Reproaching any project for not doing something that it never set out to do may be a reviewer's cardinal error. But as a listener, I hope for more adventurous things from one of opera's biggest stars. It could be a great tool for opera evangelism. It makes great listening in the car, or while making dinner. Still. That Kaufmann is capable of melting sweetness, as in "Parlami d'amore, Mariù," is not, at this point, news. The same may even be said of twists of bitter irony, or almost savage resignation, as in the standards "Caruso" and "Core 'Ngrato." I did, of course, welcome these dark undertones in a repertoire usually marketed as the musical equivalent of sunshine and sparkling wine, both unlimited.

The virtues of this album, while not insignificant, fail to excite me. The smooth orchestral sound, and the responsive dynamic variation achieved by Palermo's forces under Asher Fisch, are both delightful. And I'd rather have heard them lavished on, say, an odd, neglected verismo opera--surely Kaufmann's captain in La Navarraise would be worth hearing. I was unsurprised that Kaufmann paid close attention to the Italian dialects represented on the album. But couldn't this linguistic ability be turned to, say... Russian? There's a long tradition of recording this repertoire, from Caruso to Pavarotti and beyond. Charles Castronovo's engaging album, reviewed here, is a more creative riff on the genre than Dolce Vita. It's not that Kaufmann's is a superficial contribution. And I recognize that it's a matter of taste that I prefer weird German orchestration and songs about bitterness and loss and death. But I can't help wishing that such an unusual talent as Jonas Kaufmann's might be dedicated to popularizing some more unusual repertoire. One of the most pleasing discoveries of the album was the agility and playfulness--musical and textual--in "Voglio vivere così." So, should Kaufmann wish to prolong his sojourn on the sunnier side of the opera and opera-adjacent repertoire, comedy would seem to be a possibility! At this point in his career, surely he could commission work, as well. But I hope he gets back to darkness, or at least chiaroscuro, soon.


  1. I have a life sized print of that picture which once hung on the wall in my house.

  2. I'm laughing at myself, but I have to agree that I tend to turn to Herr Kaufmann when I need to commune mit meinem lieben Bächlein before crawling unter der lindenbaum. It might to be fun to see him do something comedic, but maybe not. Have deliberately not listened to Dolce VIta. As an American I have access to plenty of mindless cheer.

    1. I commend your listening priorities! And you make an interesting point about the fact that our environment is over-saturated with mindless cheer anyway. It's good weather for Winterreise-listening...


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