One of the most eagerly expected local debut took place in University of California, Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall last Sunday. The Munich born tenor Jonas Kaufmann, accompanied by Viennese pianist Helmut Deutsch, sang Liedern (art songs) by Robert Schumann and Richard Strauss, including the entire cycle of Dichterliebe (Poet's Love), set to texts by Heinrich Heine by Schumann.
The recital was co-presented by Cal Performances and San Francisco Opera. Cal Performances' website states:
Taking Met Opera audiences by storm in May 2010 in sold-out performances of Carmen and Tosca and appearing this spring in the Met's Robert Lepage production of Die Walküre, Jonas Kaufmann is the tenor that everyone is talking about. An exceptionally versatile vocal artist, he makes his highly anticipated Bay Area debut at Cal Performances, revealing his abundant talents as a lieder interpreter. "He has everything: intelligence, musicianship, and resourceful technique," says the New York Times.Kaufmann was greeted by thunderous applause when he and the accompanist appeared on stage. It is hard to tell if it was due to celebrity gazing factor, or genuine gratitude for the white hot tenor making an appearance in our humble town of Berkeley. The performers tried hard not to be affected by this warm and perhaps a tad embarrassing enthusiasm in order to stay in the mood for the program and rather suddenly dived into the German high romanticism immediately. It took him a couple bars to warm up and unleash his powerful tenor, formidable musicianship and the intensity ideally suited to the Byronic heroes he had sung in many exulted opera houses.
His timber was baritonal and heroic, not the most caressing sound, though he can float seemingly effortless pianissimo. His dynamic range was amazingly large and when called for, his voice was powerful and even overwhelming. His voice production was somewhat backwards and a little covered, therefore lacks the exhilarating brightness and Italianate coloration, say, à la Pavarotti. Most impressive was his intense but never melodramatic communicative and emotive power. His manner was restraint and more intense because of that.
After the intermission, we were treated with Strauss's Five Songs after Felix Dahn. They were less substantial perhaps, but gave the evening a rather welcome humorous relief, enlivened the otherwise an unrelentingly gloom evening.
After that, we were led back to the terra firma of yearning, but also some mellowness and understanding of life, which manifested the end of the epoch of aristocratic romanticism, the kind of longing, to me, forever associated with northern countries when the days were short and the sun was weak, and hope seemed forever elusive.
The rapturous audience gave them long standing ovations and eventually Kaufmann and Deutsch favored the audience with five encores.
I had thought that he might sing a French aria from say Werther. But as a serious musician, he was obviously committed to the lieder literature and all but one encores were lieder. The exception was a number from operetta, Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles) and the music though catchy, was still in full swing of burning passion and longing. It was quite impressive for him to resist the temptation to diving into operative numbers, which surely would have driven the audience into frenzy. Instead of a celebrity doing his song recital, he presented himself as a committed recitalist, though it can be argued that his voice obviously suited more to larger-than-life operative roles.
San Francisco Opera's 2011-12 season has been announced and Kaufmann again has not been engaged so far. This very fact makes me feel very provincial.