Review: After rejection in Europe, tenor Jonas Kaufmann brings his “Poison” to the Broad Stage

Jonas Kaufmann is the exemplary modern tenor in many ways.

He is one of the leading opera stars in the world and has a dashing George Clooney look. He is a more than capable actor who was a touching Tristan this summer in an emotionally strong production by the Bavarian State Opera, which was streamed from Munich. He is at home with great Verdi roles and intimate Schubert songs. He can paint the Schmaltz in the Viennese operetta as thick as you want. He’s definitely got a Christmas album in the top charts in the funnel.

In person, he can be a charmer. In a rare recital on the Broad Stage in Santa Monica Thursday night, Kaufmann revealed an impressively robust, focused, heroic voice that is especially effective when reduced to a whisper that seems to say, “Yes, I really care.” The maintenance extends to the text, every single word of it. If opening up his innermost feelings can come close to failing, at least he has them.

Overall, it’s a complete tenor package like we haven’t seen since the fall of Plácido Domingo. (In case you’re wondering, Russia hasn’t rolled up the welcome mat and Domingo is holding its Operalia competition in Moscow.)

But the German tenor is also the role model of an old-fashioned, old-fashioned, European classical singer. He and his accomplished companion Helmut Deutsch keep the white tie and tailcoat from yesteryear, and Kaufmann carries it away with vigor. His program – sung without interruption as part of the theater’s COVID-19 protection – was split into Liszt songs and a mix of his favorite songs, which he described as his favorite songs, which ranged from obscure to trite, all European in the first half , all sung in German and nothing from our time.

Kaufmann put his heart into everything. That was when he wasn’t handing out heartbreaking, deadly poison.

“My songs are poisoned” was the first line he sang in Liszt’s song of the same name. “How could they not be?” Sang is too polite. He shouted it with a tortured shriek of chalk on the blackboard that hurt his ears.

This is also the first song on his new recording of neglected Liszt songs. When it came out a few weeks ago, I started listening with headphones on at medium volume and immediately took them off. Compared to Joy Crooke’s seductive “Poison” on her new album “Skin”, Kaufmann looked as if he had converted to heavy metal, or at 52 he had a shot voice.

In fact, there have been some concerns about his voice lately. Kaufmann canceled appearances in Munich last month because of an inflammation of the trachea. Nevertheless, he was able to go on an American concert tour that included Carnegie Hall in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC and Berkeley. The infection may have something to do with the hardness he showed on Thursday with a full, house-filling volume.

I immediately shrank back when Kaufmann produced his “Gift” live – but not for long this time because the song had become theater. Kaufmann made it crystal clear that he meant what he said. In the Heine text set to music by Liszt, the poet’s heart is beset by “many snakes / and you, my beloved”. Kaufmann wasn’t kidding.

Finds are the Liszt songs, to which Kaufmann attributed German in his remarks to the audience. He sang nine of the 20 on the recording. Including wonderful evocative evocations of the Rhine and Cologne Cathedral, bells ringing, a Loreley that lures a sailor to the seabed and many a love story.

Kaufmann faced everyone as a playwright (someone should hire him to make an audio book), song always in the service of history. He was an oracle for a minute, another had a personal moment with inner thoughts. He was exaggerating, but these are old songs whose feelings could use a little help. He held out his hand to those of us sitting next to him, but most of the time he aimed at the balcony as if he were still in Carnegie Hall or the Kennedy Center rather than a theater a quarter that big.

When I looked up at the balcony, I realized why. Kaufmann’s well-heeled opera fans around me were predisposed to adore their star, up close in a rare appearance. The top was packed with a number of students. Not many of them could have ever known how amazing a great, unamplified voice can be. The loudest and most enthusiastic cheers came from the rafters. And that for an old-fashioned recital on the day before Liszt’s 210th birthday.

The second half of the program was shamelessly old school. Sentimental chestnuts – Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me” and a lullaby by Brahms – were peppered between Schubert’s lively “Der Musensohn” (son of the muses), Schumann’s tearing “dedication” (dedication) and so on.

The official program ended with the end of the world and Mahler’s – and in my opinion every composer – most moving song “Ich bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen”. The world had not escaped Kaufmann, but it had escaped a great deal of it. He let Deutsch set the otherworldly tone and sang with welcome reserve and feeling.

However, he wasn’t ready to say goodbye as he still had six encores. There were Liszt, Richard Strauss’ “Nothing” and the sugar-sweet Viennese operetta, which sent us humming home, the poison two hours ago seemed to be just a placebo.

Since then I have listened to all of Kaufmann’s Liszt recordings. It is full of miracles. As for the upcoming Christmas album, if it’s similar to last year’s Christmas album, there are worse things.

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