Friday, February 28, 2014

The beloved

Werther - Metropolitan Opera, 2/18/2014
Kaufmann, Koch, Oropesa, Bižic / Altinoglu

Recital (Schumann, Wagner, Liszt, et al.) - Carnegie Hall, 2/20/2014
Kaufmann / Deutsch

I hope -- and it does seem to be the case -- that Jonas Kaufmann enjoys being a star. Because on last Thursday's evidence, it's quite unlikely that he'll now find an audience willing to treat him as anything else.

It didn't have to be so: the last opera-celebrity moonlighter daring Dichterliebe at Carnegie was Rene Pape, and that 2009 recital was not only the greatest live performance of the lieder-summit I've witnessed, but quite possibly the greatest I've encountered anywhere, live or on record. But that was a different time, a different audience. Perhaps it was that the listeners for Pape's recital conditioned by one of the great half-season runs in the city's musical history to be attentive, present, playing their part in an indelible musical moment. But perhaps the difference is Kaufmann himself, for it was just at the start of February (at the English Concert's Theodora) that I was privileged to be part of a truly great Carnegie Hall audience, one that was at least as afflicted by the current winter bugs as last week's group but nevertheless achieved a rare rapt hush through the long da capo forms of Handel's oratorio.

Kaufmann's audience was, it turned out, excellent at one thing: showing and bestowing love, affection, and appreciation on the tenor. And so, in classic celebrity recital style, the real interest arrived with the encores, of which there were six (with regular bows in between, btw, no charging ahead into consecutive offerings) -- four by Richard Strauss for his anniversary, one more Schumann, and a cute Lehar wrap-up -- each delivered to, if anything, ever-intensifying audience enthusiasm that could have kept Kaufmann there all night. But before that earnest outpouring, during the actual artistic content of the night, it was as abominably bad an audience as I've witnessed in New York: ostentatiously coughing, fidgeting, rustling programs, letting cell phones go off for their full duration twice (and I mean you, gray-haired woman in second tier, far house right), and on the whole unable or unwilling to concentrate or let Kaufmann concentrate for more than one -- at most two -- song(s) at a time. What they wanted was easily-digested celebrity recital, and they weren't going to settle for more.

For his part, it wasn't only his fame that made Kaufmann the center of this sort of event. He sang with an increasingly impressive tone, his characteristic dark timbre, a surprisingly impeccable coherence of phrase (on a per-song basis), and remarkable sensitivity... but without one big thing: the command needed to make the show about him or his music rather than the audience and its love. Whether it was the desire to please or not to offend or simply to mirror audience sensibilities within the bounds of his pre-chosen program I don't know, he followed what one might call a decisively nineteenth-century course, adhering to Romanticism's compact with the mannered (of which I recently traced the last phases) with a surprisingly milquetoast Dichterliebe interpretation -- all songs rapt, touchingly felt, nicely formed... but quite drained of the bitterness and anger that show this subjective self's sterner side. (I call it nineteenth-century because twentieth-century modernism rediscovered and highlighted and even gave pride of place to this forceful strain, though of course it was ever present and accessible within the original.) Where Pape balanced tenderness and rage, intensifying the truth of both in their contrast, Kaufmann, shrinking the latter, delivered a whole no bigger than his audience was willing to easily take.

One wondered, in fact, if he was going to end up in a celebrity recital, making all-too-salonish use of his dark grand timbre, why Kaufmann bothered programming the serious stuff at all. Was he unaware of the actual atmosphere in which he'd sing, or is his pretending not to notice part of his charm? I doubt I'll see enough of his solo shows to come to a definite answer.

*     *     *

Perhaps, in fact, the problem was the opera that currently has his attention, which dictates a role for the Romantic outsider quite of a piece with the one he filled two days post-premiere. In Massenet's Werther, adapted very prettily to the opera-composer's era ([pre-]Impressionism and all) by Richard Eyre et al., the main character is a walk-on fantasy blank. Turning Goethe's direct epistolary form on its head, here no one cares -- or, with the one great exception of the show's big aria, even finds out -- what's going on in Werther's head. "Oh yes", one might recall as the big tune starts, "that Ossian baloney." But aside from that one brief glimpse, Werther's actual self is shut out of his own opera. He has, in fact, been turned into the fantasy Man Not Taken -- that daydream of the married since women had time to dream -- whom one might be glad (and sad, but mostly satisfiedly glad) to see still in one's orbit, reminding one of what is not but perhaps could have been. Because he's just a fantasy figure, the Man is incompletely fleshed out, his attention unnaturally fixed in the only angle in which it's interesting for the daydreamer to see him -- that is, directed to his non-possession of her.

As this fantasy figure, called upon to be compelling while allowed to show no actual character, Kaufmann scores what must be recognized as enormous personal success -- not least in singing with beauty, force, and coherence throughout. He is, in fact, very good at being interesting as nothing... one only wishes he could bring himself, despite his admirers, to be interesting and something at the same time.

*     *     *

The show -- and indeed Werther -- might have acquired more depth with a clear Charlotte, but Sophie Koch, filling in at rather long notice for Elena Garanca's pregnancy cancellation, provides no such thing. Her sound was pleasing and full enough, but as character she's as nondescript as Massenet's Werther is written. Charlotte actually provides a couple of angles one might take in making something of her fateful rejection -- wilful, perhaps, or people-pleasingly weak -- but none of them are essayed here. It's an unfortunate contrast to Lisette Oropesa, whose two post-Runner's World interview parts (Nanetta in Falstaff and Sophie here) have shown energetic and precise delineation of her soubrette characters... and no fall-off in voice from her newfound slimness. David Bizic makes a nice debut as Massenet's even-more-cardboard-than-his-Werther Albert.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.