Is Jonas Kaufmann really an exceptional tenor?

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RE: Is Jonas Kaufmann really an exceptional tenor?

I think we can all be guilty of looking back on the singers we grew up with as presenting some sort of ideal, but I do think that many of today's opera singers can be fantastic stage performers, whilst lacking in real vocal personality. I have always responded most to those voices that are immediately recognisable from just a few notes - Callas, Gobbi, Vickers, Schwarzkopf, De Los Angeles, Baker - but they are recognisable because of their ability to act with the voice. Of today's singers, DiDonato has impressed me far more on stage than on record, which is perhaps as it should be, but it is odd that her recorded performances lack the vivid personality of her stage ones.

Maybe this is also true of Kaufmann. I haven't seen him live yet, but I was mightily impressed by his Cavaradossi in the recent Covent Garden relay of Tosca. Vocally it may not have been as exciting as that of Pavarotti, but it was certainly musical and thoughtfully conceived. It also helps too that the man looks good and can act. Did Pavarotti ever really suggest the youthful revolutionary of Puccini's imaginings? Perhaps if you closed your eyes, but opera is also a visual medium. Too bad there were no tenors like Kaufmann around when Callas and Gobbi took the roles of Tosca and Scarpia back in 1964. Terfel's thuggish Scarpia (the antithesis of Gobbi's reptilian aristocrat) was equally plausible. Between such singing actors, Gheorghiu reminded me more of an old school prima donna. Whereas Kaufmann and Terfel were completely inside their roles, I was always aware she was acting, however good her actual singing.

 

 

 

RE: Is Jonas Kaufmann really an exceptional tenor?

That's a very thoughtful and fair post. I've posted elsewhere about the futility of comparisons and 'ranking' of singers. "Kaufmann will never be as good as [fill in one's own personal favourites]" really is a pointless exercise as far as I'm concerned. There has never been a time (including the so-called Golden Age) when there weren't complaints that the standard of singing was declining. Caruso was criticised for not being Jean De Reszke, who in turn was compared unfavourably with Mario, for example. 

Your point about comparative lack of individuality - that unique quality which allows one to identify a voice within just a note or two - in today's operatic voices is something I can certainly recognise, but as you rightly say, times change. For me, Kaufmann really is one of those instantly identifiable voices and having seen him live a number of times, I can say that the voice is captured very well by the microphone. This wasn't the case (for me and my ears, at least) with either Domingo or Pavarotti. The former sounded considerably less baritonal in the flesh than he does on record, whilst Pavarotti's voice live had a luscious, velvety quality which I don't think recordings ever quite captured. I saw them both as Cavaradossi and, as you say, the dramatic effect was different in each case, to say the least. You pays your money and takes your choice, as they say.

Calleja is another singer with an instantly identifiable timbre, as is the - in my opinion - sensationally voiced Sondra Radvanovsky.

Re the recent televised Tosca, I agree that Gheorgiu didn't really seem as fully dramatically involved as the the others,but she was considerably better than when I first saw her in this production. Then she seemed hardly involved at all, vocally excellent though she was, and her performance only took off at the curtain call which was a sight to behold. 

 

JKH

RE: Is Jonas Kaufmann really an exceptional tenor?

No matter how nicely you wish to put it and regardless of the "futility of comparisons", Mr. Jonas is not an exceptional tenor.

The critical question is even worse: is there any exceptional singer out there, nowadays?

To me, there is good management of the Opera singing, where singers become a kind of able managers of their art. To a great extent, the same is happening in the development of Classical Music: good management but no much room for exceptional artistry, maybe with some exception in the field of Chamber Music, where the marketing and management are not that domineering.

Parla

RE: Is Jonas Kaufmann really an exceptional tenor?

I hear you, JKH. Our friend reminds me of one of those bottom-weighted toys you put in a budgie's cage. No matter how badly it's beaten-up it always returns to its starting position, no change whatsoever.

Tsaraslondon raises a good point. How does vocal distinctiveness amongst today's singers compare with yesterday? Certainly we don't have a Callas, a Vickers or a Pavarotti but we do have Fleming and Florez, to name two whose voices are instantly recognizable on cd.

Whether vocal acting or distinctiveness is the be-all-and-end-all for today's singers, gives food for thought. I'm very happy that dvd/bluray and televised performances are allowing a wider audience to assess opera for what it really is, a multi-faceted and incredibly complex art form, not just a vehicle for singing. Park and bark performances don't cut it any more. The camera puts us all at front row or closer. What singers used to try to portray with hand to heart and forehead can now be projected with the eyes alone. Similar changes are happening in the theatre. Listen to Ian McKellen talk about how he plays Lear today, compared to yesterday.

Given these changes, should singers shift emphasis from vocal to physical acting, or are both essential? Certainly, at camera range there's a danger of over-acting. Perhaps character projection has become more of a question of balancing modes of expression. And back to Kaufmann, it has also become increasingly important that singers look as well as act the part. We're no longer content to squint from 40 rows back and make believe that the roly-poly tenor jammed into that costume is in fact a young warrior.

Incidentally, the double standard still seems to operate in opera. Voigt, Brewer and others are given ultimatums to cut down on the fish suppers while Margison, Vargas and quite a few others continue to pack it on. Watching Heppner emerge from his dungeon in Fidelio after months of starvation is an exercise in keeping a straight face. This, I feel, will change.

In total, these considerations underline the futility of comparing one era with another. Comparisons over time are as fraught with ifs, ands and buts in opera as in sport.

RE: Is Jonas Kaufmann really an exceptional tenor?

tagalie wrote:

Tsaraslondon raises a good point. How does vocal distinctiveness amongst today's singers compare with yesterday? Certainly we don't have a Callas, a Vickers or a Pavarotti but we do have Fleming and Florez, to name two whose voices are instantly recognizable on cd.

A lot o folk make same point about violinists or piano players, that they have no style today and though technically excellent they are unrecognisable from one another. Happen it might be a lot of the recognisable traits of the past be terrible mannerisms that are now frowned upon and stamped out. I think we harve some bootiful singers around today and if truth be told thaart callas can sound a bit harsh and wobbly sometimes and I loves her me does. 

RE: Is Jonas Kaufmann really an exceptional tenor?

I hear you too, my friend Tagalie.

For clarification's reasons, I wish to reiterate that what I know is that Opera is neither a multi-faceted and definitely not an "incredibly complex art form". It's simply a popular form of theatre (and probably the most popular form of Classical Music), where the "actors" sing instead of speaking and they are judged only (or predominantly) for that. In other works, Opera is all about singing!

So, when I claim Mr. Kaufmann is not an exceptional tenor, I don't mean he's not a good (or very good) opera singer. I just underline that, vocally speaking, he is not that special, that unique. By the way, whenever I saw any of these modern "managers" of the opera singing live, either in full opera performances or in concert, I never appreciated them more than their recordings (except for Netrebko, perhaps). Even their acting skills look like a capable "management" of the role rather than a true committed performance. Most of the time, I feel pleased, but never thrilled, excited, transformed. And how come? Any acting cannot be convincing without the great weapon of the voice and the brilliant use of it. In the Opera House, I don't go for the acting but rather for the musical and vocal acting. The Voice and the Music make all the difference.

Parla

RE: Is Jonas Kaufmann really an exceptional tenor?

tagalie wrote:

Opera is popular theatre? By what yardstick do you apply the term "popular theatre" to opera?

Come,come Tagalie. Surely you can't have missed all those old music halls putting on performances of Don Carlos and The Ring with seasoned panto performers and ex-actors from The Bill? And what about those impromptu open-mike sessions in the local boozer when they put on shows such as Wozzeck and Palestrina?

 

 

JKH

RE: Is Jonas Kaufmann really an exceptional tenor?

Dear Tagalie, you don't read me well.

When I said "Opera is a popular form of theatre", I didn't mean it is cheap or trivial. It's a form of theatre (with music and actors who sing) for the people. Compared to any other genre of Classical Music, it's the one who can address the wider public, more than the Chamber Music with its very exclusive fans, more than the concert-goers, who need a minimum knowledge of the Symphonic repertory and preparation for the concert, more than the very solemn character of Choral Music. A Carmen or a Barbiere or a Traviata have the immediate appeal to the people, regardless of preparation and with a direct effect much stronger and more effective than almost anything else in Classical Music.

In Berlin, they struggle to keep up with the two Orchestras they have, while they can serve well the three Opera Houses. In Dresden, after the restoration of Semper Opera, the House is almost full, all the time. The Dresden Philharmonic?..(Still, some faithful ones go to some concerts in their conventional Hall).

As for my second "claim", I said : "The Voice and the Music make all the difference". Which means that, of course, the drama, the staging, the literature (is any libretto real literature that can stand any performance of its own?) and dancing (when applicable) are necessary, but without the Music and the Voice(s) the other factors cannot work, while with the voices and the music you can tolerate the rest. So, I never implied to remove any element of the Opera; I simply claimed that we need the great voices and the respective conductors to reach this level of the unique Opera performance.

To give you an example: As a potential producer in an imaginary time, are you going to stage "La Boheme" with Pavarotti and Freni along with mediocrities in direction, visual effects, costumes, etc. or the same work with the best stage director, the greatest costume designer, the best available visual effects and anything else you may wish, but with a third rate voice tenor and a wobbly dissonant soprano?

I hope by now, you may comprehend my point(s).

Parla

RE: Is Jonas Kaufmann really an exceptional tenor?

Well in London we have a plethora of orcehstras but just two permanent opera companies (The Royal Opera and The English National Opera), which hardly backs your argument, parla.

As for "La Boheme". my favourite DVD production is of an Australian Opera production with young, though hardly first rate singers, in all the main roles. It's vital, charming and works totally as music drama. On the other hand I remember seeing a video of a performance with a mature Freni (late in her career) and an overweight Pavarotti, that made a complete mockery of the plot. It might have sounded nice, but didn't work dramatically one bit.

 

 

RE: Is Jonas Kaufmann really an exceptional tenor?

sachs wrote:

...is it permissible such a degree of squillo lack?...

sachs, I'm intrigued with your use of the word squillo.  Not being an opera expert I had to look it up and found that the Wikipedia entry is disputed and online dictionaries are no help.  Even Oxford Music Online returned no results.

Would you confirm your definition please?

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