Ablaze With Feeling
Jonas Kaufmann sings Verismo Arias

On 14 April 2010 Jonas Kaufmann became the first German tenor to sing Cavaradossi at the Metropolitan Opera in one hundred and three years. He shaped Puccini’s music with exceptional elegance, balancing the character’s essential revolutionary fervour with a heart–stopping tenderness. Critics and audiences received the portrayal ecstatically.

Listeners familiar with Kaufmann’s artistry in German and French repertoire exclusively will be astonished by his affinity for Italian music of the late–nineteenth and early–twentieth centuries. Having already welcomed him as Cavaradossi, Covent Garden will present his first Maurizio during the 2010–11 season. Future plans include another role debut, Andrea Chénier, and Turiddu and Canio will follow.

In preparing this programme of music by Verdi’s and Puccini’s contemporaries, Kaufmann was gratified that his fluent Italian enabled him to "understand double–meanings and discover the secrets between the written lines". Freedom from technical worries allowed Kaufmann to concentrate exclusively on communication, "with the text leading me automatically into the emotional circumstances of each piece".

Kaufmann recognises that most of these roles lack the dramatic complexities of his usual opera repertoire. "In verismo it’s just pure soul and passion, but that’s what I love so much about it! These arias are charged with emotions that can bring you to tears. I recorded the German–aria album because there’s so much going on in that music and those characters, but the most enthusiastic music – the most ecstatic music – is verismo."

In choosing the programme, it was a challenge to avoid similarity in mood, structure, and key. Turiddu’s Brindisi from Cavalleria rusticana is included "so there’s not just suffering in this album, but also some sprinkling of joy".

The unfamiliar tomb–scene monologue from Zandonai’s Giulietta e Romeo is Kaufmann’s "desert–island" piece on the recording. While finding the rest of that opera unimpressive, he considers Leoncavallo’s La Bohème "absolutely worth doing onstage! If Puccini hadn’t written his version, this one definitely would have entered the standard repertoire." Kaufmann’s advocacy of Marcello’s heartfelt "Testa adorata" will surely inspire enterprising opera companies to investigate the "other" Bohème.

Compared with Verdi, several arias heard here are quite short – for example, "Amor ti vieta" from Fedora – "but you have to fill up those eight phrases with feeling", says Kaufmann, "while making it sound effortless". Similarly brief but equally memorable are the Adriana Lecouvreur arias; Kaufmann finds a special –elegance in Maurizio, "a lighter version of verismo, without the extreme outbursts and heavy orchestration". In the character’s magnificent entrance aria "you see how patria, the motherland, is so important to him – he compares Adriana’s beauty to his flag!" In contrast, his second aria is "heartbreaking. With just two or three chords we sense a real depression in him."

It fascinates Kaufmann that Italian composers were so attracted to the historic French milieus of Adriana Lecouvreur and Andrea Chénier. In the latter’s formidable "Improvviso" (atypical for verismo in its length), one must convincingly connect the individual sections while eloquently inflecting a profoundly moving text. "Chénier’s other aria isn’t comparable", comments Kaufmann, "but it does draw you in right away, with the quality of a Neapolitan canzonetta about it." The tenor encouraged Decca to include the Chénier final duet, "written so beautifully that it easily carries you away, making all those B flats seem the most natural thing in the world". Kaufmann greatly enjoyed recording it with Eva–Maria Westbroek, "one of the loveliest people you can imagine. If you have a partner with such a huge, gorgeous voice, there’s no holding back – you just go for it."

While Maurizio and Chénier require a spinto voice, more lyric instruments frequently essay two other roles excerpted here: Faust in Mefistofele, an irresistible character for Kaufmann ("I wish we’d had a bass so we could have con–tinued those scenes!"), and Federico in L’Arlesiana, whose aria "carries tons of emotions. They’re shaped so skillfully, building up, then building up again, until the explosion at the end." Like Federico’s lament, Enzo’s rapturous monologue from La Gioconda is much beloved by audiences worldwide. Also by Ponchielli is a genuine rarity, Corrado’s farewell from I Lituani. After Pappano suggested it, La Scala’s librarians found Kaufmann a score. His reaction was simply "Wow!" and he remembers that the Santa Cecilia orchestra, who didn’t know the aria, responded the same way.

In conversation Kaufmann repeatedly emphasises the emotional content of this repertoire – above all, the Zandonai aria: "I doubt that you can put more personal feelings into music. Romeo is mourning Giulietta, but in a shockingly realistic way. Listening to it is like sneaking into someone’s privacy." In such music, "it’s satisfying when you can slip into your character and feel how the emotions change your sound, your breathing, your whole approach to the notes".

In recording this album Kaufmann was thrilled to continue his rewarding collaboration with Antonio Pappano, "one of the world’s top conductors, who also loves singers". The Santa Cecilia orchestra dazzled Kaufmann, and reportedly the feeling was mutual. He realised that "it’s not high notes or technical brilliance that this orchestra loves so much – it’s the feelings that really interest them. It was great to see they were so enthusiastic, so totally with me."

Rome’s unique ambiance added to the occasion. "I had a beautiful room at the Villa Borghese", Kaufmann recalls. "I could have breakfast outside in March because it was so warm. You go out, you have a beautiful dinner after the sessions. There was a feeling, an italianità, that helped establish the mood of the recording from the very beginning."

Roger Pines

Roger Pines, dramaturg and broadcast commentator for Lyric Opera of Chicago,
writes regularly for recordings, music magazines and opera companies.