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Kaufmann Returns!

New York
Carnegie Hall
01/20/2018 -  & January 15, 2018 (Santa Monica)
Franz Schubert : Die schöne Müllerin, D. 795
Jonas Kaufmann (tenor), Helmut Deutsch (piano)

J. Kaufmann (© Julian Hargreaves)

Jonas Kaufmann has attained superstar status – at least on one side of the Atlantic. Following his appearances in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Parsifal some years ago, he all but disappeared from American stages. His most recent Met engagement, as Cavaradossi in the company’s new Tosca, was cancelled months ahead of time. This followed cancelled Met appearances in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and Bizet’s Carmen. Enraged arts administrators all over America have been loathe to hire him, despite his remarkable talent, for fear of being left high and dry. Disappointed fans with lowered expectations, and more than a few snarky critics, have egged them on. But Kaufmann’s star power was irresistible this evening as he took on the first real cycle of art songs, a Romantic era innovation that reveals a deeply emotive story through component songs.

In twenty songs, Franz Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin tells such a tale, of a young journeyman’s delight as he embraces travel, explores nature, and falls head over heels for a beautiful miller’s daughter. Once true love runs its course, he discovers that she has betrayed him with a hunter, leaving him to wallow in despair before finally taking comfort in the peacefulness of life back home, benignly eased into recovery by the blessings of nature rather than the usual cynical calculation that his faithless paramour was not good enough for him. The cycle is at once earthy and transcendent, deeply human yet profoundly spiritual.

And it was entirely well suited to Kaufmann’s voice, lovingly accompanied by the finesse of the virtuoso pianist Helmut Deutsch. New York audiophiles seemed divided into two camps that cancelled each other out – those who found him too soft and delicate and those who found him too forceful and vulgar. In fact he was neither. Both parts of the evening unfolded with a grace and panache born of near total control of Kaufmann’s instrument. The bright innocence of the journeyman’s entry into the world radiated with clarion brilliance. It darkened in mood as events of the songs exposed him to human failings of the type that all mature people are cursed to know. Haunting airs memorably inhabited his finale lullaby, sung as the young man is rocked to rest by the universe itself, a comforting feeling for any breakup.

Some took issue with Kaufmann’s four encores, all delightfully delivered Schubert songs, arguing that they spoiled the emotional effect of the introspective main fare. But this is not Parsifal and there was no need to file silently out of Carnegie Hall in quasi-religious reverence. Hearing this wonderful artist in such an intimate piece made one thirst for more. The encores did their job, but the true fans will be there in April, when Kaufmann returns to Carnegie for a concert performance of Act II of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde with the Boston Symphony. I will be there if he is.

Paul du Quenoy



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