Review: Jonas Kaufmann’s Concerts Come to California – Los Angeles Opera, March 11, 2011

German tenor Jonas Kaufmann is a sure box office draw in the major opera houses of Europe. Now in his early 40s, with a young family, his activities are centered in the likes of Munich, Berlin, Bayreuth, London, Zurich, Vienna and Paris.

In fact, since his foray into Chicago as des Grieux in Massenet’s “Manon” in Fall 2008 (see my review at Kaufmann Astonishes, Dessay Enraptures, in McVicar “Manon”: Lyric Opera of Chicago – October 15, 2008) his only North American appearance have been at the New York Metropolitan Opera (as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s “Tosca” and Don Jose in Bizet’s “Carmen”). As a result, few opera goers in the Pacific Coast states have seen him in live performance.

But over the next year, his schedule is beginning to take him further afield, with more appearances scheduled in New York City and a visit to Japan next fall. Just prior to performances of Siegmund in Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” at the Met, Kaufmann agreed to come to California to perform two lieder concerts – one on March 11 with the Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the other at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall as a co-production between the University of California Berkeley’s Cal Performance Series (March 13) and the San Francisco Opera. I attended the Los Angeles performance.

In both places, Kaufmann’s program consisted of 19th century songs set to texts by German poets,. Kaufmann was accompanied on the piano by the distinguished accompanist Helmut Deutsch, who is associated with several of the most important German artists of the past three decades. Deutsch demonstrated his extraordinary musicianship throughout the concert.

[Below: Accompanist Helmut Deutsch, edited image, based on a promotional photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Kaufmann’s concert was divided into two parts separated by an intermission. The first part was comprised of songs written by Robert Schumann with four selections from the 12 songs of Aus den Kerner-Liedern (opus 35) and all 16 of Schumann’s Dichterliebe (opus 48).

The songs based on the poetry of Justinus Kerner date from Schumann’s late 20s, and reflect the German Romantic era’s affection for the wildness of the natural world, tinged with a bit of melancholy. Leading off with the jaunty Wanderlied which he attacked aggressively, Kaufmann was expressive in the pensive Erstes Gruen, then showed off the baritonal depths of his voice in the Wanderung and his secure command of legato in Stille Traenen.

These were followed by the 16 short songs of the Dichterliebe, based on the poetry of Heinrich Heine, that included some of the evening’s most eloquent singing.

[Below: Robert Schumann at age 29, at the time he was compsoing the Kerner-Liedern; edited image, based on the 1839 lithograph by Joseph Kriehuber.]

The Place of the Lieder Recital

Opera singers are challenged by the lieder repertory, which requires the conveyance of a range of sentiments, precise pronuniation and an ability to tell the story of the song – stylistically correct and effectively sung – in each song’s short duration. Thus, the recitals are considered by many opera singers to be an important part of their career.

For those opera goers in the audience, there is the ability to judge the state of the artist’s voice, stripped of the operatic surroundings and full orchestra. The Schumann songs often displayed the depth and power of Kaufmann’s lower register, whereas the Strauss songs often accentuated the high tessitura of his dramatic tenor voice.

The Medievalists Schumann and Strauss

There is also an opportunity to reflect on these songs in the development of the vocal styles of two composers. The song cycles chosen by Kaufmann were each written a few years before the composer’s first (and in the case of Schumann, only) opera, each of which – Schumann’s “Genoveva” and Strauss’ “Guntram” – is considered more or less a failure, certainly in neither case an opera that can be considered to be in the standard repertory.

“Guntram” is the most obviously Wagnerian of the Strauss operas, so it is especially interesting to hear Kaufmann sing the Schlichte Weisen, five songs composed to poems of Felix Dahn. (Since “Guntram” is so obscure to most opera goers, thought is rarely given to the fact that its late Roman Empire-early medieval era plot deals with subject matter not that far distant from the subject of Dahn’s novel, A Struggle for Rome.)

I suspect, however, that I was one of the few in the audience who reflected on the fact that I was witnessing a tenor whose international reputation has been enhanced by the Wagnerian jugendlicher roles, including the mythically medieval title roles of “Lohengrin” and “Parsifal”, singing songs written just before their composers wrote the mythically medieval operas “Genoveva” and “Guntram”.

[Below: Richard Strauss at age 26; edited image, based on a photograph by Fr. Mueller of Munich.]

The audience, whose applause had been generous for the Schumann songs, was particularly enthusiastic for the Strauss works. Particularly praiseworthy were the his seductive interpretations of Sehnsucht and Ich liebe dich (both with texts by Detlev von Liliencron) and Nachtgang and Freundliche Vision (both with texts by Otto Julius Bierbaum). One had no difficulty in believing that Strauss was within just a few years of his string of great operatic hits.

The final works on the official program were the Four Songs from 1894 that were set to the German words of the Scottish poet John Henry Mackay. By this time, Kaufmann was the evening’s true heldentenor and recipient of a standing ovation, which was acknowledged by no less than five encores, including one of Lehar’s most popular arias, leaving Los Angeles as a “land of smiles”.