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Classical review: Jonas Kaufmann, Philharmonia, Rieder, Royal Festival Hall, London


Verdi or Wagner? Posing the musical question of the year, tenor Jonas Kaufmann answers it by saying that he has vacillated between them, unable to decide whose music he prefers. He finally declares that they are mutually beneficial: "After singing Wagner you have an extra dose of power for the drama in Verdi, and after singing Verdi, it is much easier to sing Wagner, as the composer intended, with Italian legato." It was this latter course that he adopted at the Royal Festival Hall, backed by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Jochen Rieder.

Spanning the competing demands of Wagner, bel canto, and Schubert Lieder, Kaufmann’s artistry has become universally accepted as the benchmark for excellence, and it’s allied to a magnetically attractive physical presence (hence the brooding full-page photos in the programme). Since the first half of the evening would consist of four Verdi arias, the bill of fare was bumped out with orchestral interludes, the first of which was the overture to Luisa Miller, after which Kaufmann came on with a disarming apology for bringing along his libretto (too much travelling, no time to learn the words). But when he launched into Rodolfo’s devastated ‘If only my eyes were deceiving me’ we immediately got the full wattage: the burnished tone came over with spinto fury, periodically dropping gracefully into half-voice, and the whole aria was exquisitely shaded.

Thus was the pattern set for the evening: arias interspersed with overtures from Nabucco, Simon Boccanegra, La traviata, Don Carlo, and La forza del destino. And if the orchestral contributions were at best run-of-the-mill, Kaufmann’s singing had a luminous beauty. The Wagner arias which followed were even more remarkable. Siegmund’s ‘My father promised me a sword’ had irresistible pathos, Walther’s account of his musical education in Die Meistersinger radiated youthful ardour, and Parsifal’s meditation on Amfortas’s sacred wound had mystical force; the pace and colouring of each was fastidiously controlled. The audience’s ecstatic response was the trigger for him to sing two of the bitter-sweet Wesendonck songs on his new Wagner Cd as encores.

But this was a celebrity promotion rather than a proper recital, in that the programme had absolutely no musical structure, and the programme-book had no lyrics. Before the next event in this so-called ‘opera season’, the least producer Raymond Gubbay can do is ensure that the audience know what his stars are singing about, rather than leaving them in the dark.