Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Jonas Kaufmann, packed in polystyrene


You know how sometimes you receive a big box in the post, and you start to unpack it? You work your way through the tape and the cardboard. Then out fly a thousand little polystyrene piecelets that you'll still be fishing out from under the sofa in three months' time. Underneath that, a polystyrene mould to hold The Thing Itself in place. The Thing Itself is in a bag, so you take it out, then find it's also shrink-wrapped in tough plastic casing that is hard to cut through. Eventually you get it out and it's beautiful ... but there's not much of it, and why, oh why, that quantity of packaging? More Thing, please, and less material for the recycling bin?

Welcome to Jonas Kaufmann at the Royal Festival Hall.

He could scarcely have been on finer form if he'd tried. Having come successfully through surgery in early September for a node in his chest - it turned out, thank heavens, to be benign - the German tenor, man of the operatic moment, sounded fighting fit and ready for anything. In a programme mixing verismo arias familiar and less so, a bloom from Carmen, two Wagner jewels and four generous encores, he grew finer and finer as the evening went on. The concert programme held seven arias - surrounded by the polystyrene piecelets of orchestral bits and pieces that could have been fun had they been well played, properly rehearsed and a tad fewer in number. But that's the principle of such an evening. We want The Thing Itself and we will buy tickets. And if the "product" is 60 per cent packaging, there's nothing we can do about that. If The Thing Itself is worth it, we just accept the nonsense.

This one was indeed worth it.

Kaufmann's rise and rise has been magnificent to witness. It doesn't seem so long since his first CD of Strauss Lieder hit my desk and knocked me off my chair. "Do you know this man?" I asked here on JDCMB. Then we didn't. Now we do, and we're at his feet.

What's the secret of his success? Several points stand out: strange, fabulous, magical.

Strange: at first Kaufmann can sound like a baritone - that covered, whispered, speaking low tone. And then he reaches the high notes and there is nothing he can't do up there. Think: cathedral with fascinating architectural details below and high windows positioned specifically to allow the sun to pour in at the psychological moment.

Fabulous: the control. Take one note, probably on the high side, and sustain it. Start at pppp and increase to ffff gradually, keeping the tone steady and pure throughout. That isn't usually how human breath works. Carmen Flower Song: the precise shadings of timbre as the story is told, the nuances of emotion articulated in each word, but also contained in the sound itself. Fabulous too: the diction, German, Italian, French, and the snapping from one style to the next. Richard Tauber's 'Du bist die Welt fur mich', encore no.2, sung almost like Schubert, with an innigkeit suggestive of layers of meaning beneath the surface. Then, whoosh, we're in Pagliacci for encore no.3, 'Vesti la giubba', and we're listening to someone who really ought to be Italian, the way he twirls and spits the melodrama, those words, that laugh, that unbelievable melody.

Magical: his ability to transform himself into the character he's singing, no matter what's going on around him. Above all, Lohengrin. Kaufmann slid into 'In fernem land' as if there could be no more tender, visionary, perfect creation in the history of humankind. As if he really was destined to find the Holy Grail (pace Monty Python). As if he had just parked his swan outside by the Thames and would be off to resume the Grail Quest as soon as the concert was over. That exceptional tenderness was true, too, of his last encore, Refice's 'Ombra di nube', a sliver of under-known perfection that calmed everyone down (after 'Vesti la giubba' had rawked the auditorium).

He's a real pro, of course, making the very most of the occasion, working the hall, hugging the conductor before pushing him back onto the podium for one more encore. And this was a fabulous evening, one that I think everyone in the packed-to-rafters RFH will remember for years to come.

There's a sour aftertaste nonetheless: must the orchestra and audience be treated like budget airline customers? When corners are cut, people know it. For one thing, I didn't spot any translations anywhere in the house: not in the programme (£6), nor any quickly photocopied sheets of paper. A lot of people wanted them and they weren't there. This audience would also have liked better orchestral playing, which goodness knows the RPO is capable of if it has time to rehearse a programme of this length properly. They had another demanding concert the night before and scant chance to do justice to the music they were bashing through. You have to realise that rehearsing costs money... They did the best they could under the circumstances. It's good that there were a few moments when they sounded inspired: the cellos duetting with Don Jose in the Flower Song, lifted to a new level by the marvel of the voice they were shadowing.

But this audience knew what was going on. This wasn't a typical "light classics"-style date and it attracted a different crowd: an upmarket collection of opera buffs and Kaufmann fanatics, ready to listen to Zandonai and Wagner from the classiest tenor on the planet. The bluff was called: during the standing ovation one solitary but loud boo rang out, to the distress of those around it. A nutter? A jealous unemployed tenor? Or perhaps someone who felt ready to tell the promoter a home truth or two? He was drowned out by the cheering - but was noticed.