Coming so soon after his exceptional Wagner album for Decca an album of Verdi favourites with Jonas Kaufmann could easily have seemed anti-climactic. So let’s get the worst news out of the way first - Kaufmann was never suited to the superficial glamour of the Duke of Mantua and the insouciant glee of “La donna è mobile” is simply not in his armoury. Pavarotti sounds like a ray of careless sunshine in the aria whereas Kaufmann merely manages to sound lachrymose. There are at least ten other Verdi arias or duets I would have preferred him to tackle and would have suited him infinitely better. If he really felt the need to tackle an excerpt from Rigoletto then “Ella mi fu rapita” would have been a wiser choice. However I have a horrible feeling that the decision to record this piece at all was a cynical commercial choice, providing an instantly recognisable, bite size bon-bon for the commercial market. If so, it is unworthy of both the artist and his new record label.
With that gripe out of the way it is a pleasure to note that the rest of the album is on an entirely different level and, while not quite attaining the heights of Kaufmann’s Wagner recordings, is certainly a worthy addition to an overpopulated market. Second on the menu is “Celeste Aïda”, one of Verdi’s most cruel tests of a tenor since, not only does the unfortunate singer have to plunge in without pre-amble but is also expected to sing the final B flat pianissimo morendo to ppp without cracking or losing pitch. Most tenors don’t even attempt it but Kaufmann, to his credit, does and brings it off superbly. Whether he would take such a risk in the theatre is another matter entirely: unfortunately there are many theatres in Italy where such artistic scrupulousness is more likely to reap catcalls than bravos. The rest of the aria is on a similar level, a couple of slightly swooping descents aside, and I look forward to the promised complete recording with Pappano.
I am less convinced by his Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera. The part requires a feather-down touch especially in the early sections before the story darkens towards tragedy. Thus Kaufmann is significantly less successful in the canzone “Di tu se fedele”. I forget who described Riccardo a being like a ray of light piercing the gloom of this scene but we never get that feel from Kaufmann. However he has no problem with the testing low Cs which many tenors duck altogether. He even manages to make them sound more than just a strange misjudgement on Verdi’s part. The gorgeous romanza “Ma se m’è forza perdeti” suits him much better and he captures Riccardo’s longing and the premonition of impending tragedy.
He is similarly successful in the gloomy musings of Manrico in “Ah! sì ben mio” although I am not convinced the part suits him as well as the late Verdi roles. I prefer a brighter sound in the part than Kaufmann can muster but there is no arguing with the heroism of his cabaletta: both verses and two spiffing top Cs.
I very much enjoyed Kaufmann’s approach to Rodolfo’s recitative and aria from Luisa Miller. The former is one the earliest examples of the grand accompanied Verdian recitative which reached its apogee in “La vita è inferno all’infelice” in La forza del destino. Kaufmann instantly captures the mingled rage and grief of the young man and the ensuing aria, “Quanda la sere al placido”, is meltingly sung without ever subsuming the drama to mere beautiful vocalism. Luisa Miller is overdue for a decent revival at Covent Garden and I would love to hear Kaufmann in the complete role.
The aria from Simon Boccanegra and the duet from Don Carlo are equally successful although I guiltily wished he had recorded the Lacrymosa duet from the Paris Version especially as it is now often restored to its rightful place. The aforementioned Forza aria is expansively sung and Kaufmann aptly captures Alvaro’s gloomy pessimism. Once he has performed the role complete he will, I suspect, find even more light and shade in the great recitative (one of my absolute favourite Verdian moments).
I masnadieri is not often performed, especially these days. It certainly isn’t Verdi at his greatest even when considered against other “galley years” works. Kaufmann makes what he can of the anti-hero’s Act III aria but even he can’t disguise that the interest in this work lies mainly with the baritone and bass parts.
And from average Verdi we move to his greatest masterpiece. Although Kaufmann has set no date or place for his Otello debut, it is already one of the most widely anticipated future events. Here he gives us two tantalising glimpses of what we can expect. Kaufmann’s dark tone and heroic thrust, so wrong for the Duke, is ideally suited to Verdi’s most demanding tenor role and he already shows himself equal to the musical and dramatic challenges. Just one illustration of his sensitivity comes in the cataclysmic “Oh, gloria!” immediately degenerating into the shattered emptiness of “Otello fu”. I can hardly wait for him to tackle the whole role.
There is a bonus item in the aria from Act IV of Macbeth which, excellent though it undoubtedly is, seems diminished when heard straight after the final scene from Otello. Might we not have had “Ora e per sempre addio” or even one of the duets?
Sony Classical 88765492002
Don Carlo photograph © Catherine Ashmore