Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Jonas Kaufmann in French

Jonas Kaufmann's latest album, L'Opéra, is not flashy, but it is substantial. It showcases an expressive range that is impressive -- if not, at this stage of his career, surprising -- and an artistic thoughtfulness that is one of the things I have long valued in him. In roles ranging from Romeo to Aeneas, it is those at the latter end of the spectrum that fit the current weight and timbre of his voice better, but there is something in each to be savored. Not least among the album's merits is the ravishing quality of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Bertrand de Billy. Indeed, the shimmering, breathless quality of the strings and woodwinds would be reason enough to keep "Ah! lêve-toi, soleil!"


It's been several years since I've had the chance to hear Kaufmann live, so for me, it's both pleasing and reassuring to hear him recorded in such fine form. His phrasing is exquisite, his control of dynamics assured. His gift for caressing text to the point of indecency and past it is also on full display. His Werther has been much recorded, but I am glad to have this version of "Pourquoi me reveiller," superbly controlled and superbly partnered by the orchestra. Here and in Wilhelm Meister's aria from Mignon, Kaufmann's phrasing approaches the hypnotic. Though I might quibble stylistically with the choices on a few of the arias, I could never fault the musicianship. The album's breadth, including several rarities, makes it a worthy acquisition for aficionados of nineteenth-century French opera, as well as for Kaufmann's devotees.

Lest I sound too entirely hypnotized, I shall pass swiftly to my minor quibbles. "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" contains a jaw-dropping piannissimo on "...et j'étais une chose à toi!" but must inevitably pale in comparison to the urgency of Kaufmann's own live Don Josés. I looked, similarly, for a trifle more reckless abandon in "O Dieu, de quel ivresse!" The harpist and violinist deserve to be singled out, however. And on repeated listenings, I found myself increasingly willing to accept the unexpectedly deliberate tempo as expressing an ecstasy of its own. I can never hear "Puisqu'on ne peut fléchir... Vainement, ma bien-aimée" often enough. While delighted that Kaufmann included it, I found myself wishing for more lightness in it. Still, it's very hard to resist its ardor. In the two scenes from Manon given with Sonya Yoncheva, I found the erotically charged antagonism of "Toi! Vous!" more convincing than "En fermant les yeux," but the pairing was a poignant one. And, again, the orchestra demonstrated its excellence.

Quibble-free are my reactions to other standards and rarities. Getting to hear Ludovic Tézier alongside Kaufmann in the entire exchange leading into an intensely passionate "Au fond du temple saint" is a treat, and both singers chart a profound emotional journey without lapsing into cliché. The same may be said of the always-laudable orchestra. "Ô Paradis!" from L'Africaine, was so lovely as to tempt me into forgetting the langueurs of the opera. Kaufmann brought a hushed wonder to it that I found very charming, as well as charting the grace notes with delicate precision. And "Ô souverain, ô juge, ô père!" is something I hope will be permanently added to Kaufmann's recital repertoire, as a revival of Le Cid might be a bit much to ask. Really, the end of the album goes from strength to strength, with a heartwrenching "Rachel, quand du seigneur," and an "Inutiles regrets!" that made me feel more sorry for Enée than I usually do. While temporarily far from opera houses, I welcome this CD to cheer my exile.

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