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Classical 101

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann Takes On Tristan

Gregor Hohenberg
Sony Classical
Jonas Kaufmann

There may be a phantom of the opera in literature, in the movies and on Broadway. But in recent years, tenor Jonas Kaufmann has risked being labeled the phantom tenor.

Kaufmann has it all — baritone burnished tenor voice and great musicianship. His career trajectory has followed his sensational gifts. He's the Verdi, Gounod, Puccini and now Wagner tenor everywhere in the world, from Berlin to New York to Buenos Aires.

Why phantom? Kaufmann has become king of cancellations. Announced performances in New York and  Europe have been abandoned, as the tenor seeks to carve out more time with his family.

It's understandable since opera contracts are often set years in advance. Still, Kaufmann has the marquee value — and the goods to back it up — so each cancellation has been a huge disappointment to fans and managements.

The announcement that Kaufmann would come to America to sing Act II of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde with the Boston Symphony was met with some skepticism.

First, can he sing Tristan, the Mt. Everest for tenors? Secondly, would he show up?

He did, and he could.

What do you think? Here's an excerpt: Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony in Symphony Hall, with Camilla Nylund as Isolde.

The critics were respectful. If Kaufmann was expecting hosannas, he almost got them (I probably would have hosanna-ed, had I been there.)

From the Boston Classical Review:

Kaufmann, who has drawn critical acclaim for his performances of Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera, also sang with power and depth in the opening of the scene between the two lovers. Bold and ringing clearly, his voice brought a genuine heldentenor quality to the role.

From The Boston Globe:

Standing behind music stands on opposite sides of the podium, Kaufmann and Nylund sang their impassioned duet while facing the audience oratorio-style, and both of them relied heavily on their vocal scores. Within that scope Kaufmann delivered, despite a few less steady moments. Certainly when he telegraphed Tristan’s ardor with ringing tenorial power, or when he sang of night’s gentle charms with beautifully shaded tones that somehow combined tenderness and intensity, you sensed the winning Tristan he could eventually become. Nylund, who is also still finding her way into this daunting role, sang honorably and at her best moments, registered her character’s impatient ecstasies with bright vocal radiance.

And from The New York Times:

There were tantalizing moments — long stretches, even — in his courageous performance. When Tristan arrives at night to meet Isolde, Mr. Kaufmann combines virile energy with dusky colorings to suggest a man caught between desire and world-weary sadness. But he was particularly fine when passions calm for a while and the two lovers sink into Wagner’s nocturne, longing to be eternally united in death. The covered quality of Mr. Kaufmann’s voice, in which even firm, sustained notes have a slightly shaded cast, was what you dream of hearing when Tristan sings these melting phrases. A great Tristan must have vocal endurance to sing the entire role, and Mr. Kaufmann still seems to be finding his way. He also appeared to be grappling with some congestion and took frequent sips of water. But this was a big step.

A formidable new Tristan is a rarity. The world of music awaits.

"The music is like a drug, extremely addictive," Kaufmann told The New York Times. "You can never get rid of it. It is always there, stuck in your brain."

Kaufmann has announced he will sing Tristan — all of it — in 2021. I'm buying a new piggy bank to start saving now.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.
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